January 27, 2016–Verizon received “a substantially increased number of demands” in the second half of 2016 for “cell tower dumps,” which enable law enforcement authorities to identify the phone numbers of all devices that connected to a specific cell tower at a particular time, the company said today in its semiannual “transparency report.” “This tool is being used much more frequently by law enforcement,” the report said. “We previously reported that in 2013 we received approximately 3,200 warrants or orders for cell tower dumps; we received 14,630 warrants or orders for cell tower dumps in 2016 (including the almost 6,000 demands we reported receiving in the first half of 2016), a substantial increase.”
“Although the total number of cell tower demands we are receiving has been increasing, the amount of information we gather and produce in response to such demands has greatly decreased,” the report added. “The average amount of phone numbers we have gathered in performing these court-required cell tower dumps has decreased in the past few years from approximately 400 per demand to about 100.”
“There may be a number of factors that explain that decrease, including cell densification (more cell sites may mean less devices in the smaller geographic areas covered by some cell sites), but we also think that some of the reduction is because our team has been asking law enforcement to narrow the scope of some broad demands for cell tower dumps,” it said.
The number of subpoenas, orders, warrants, and emergency requests Verizon received from federal, state, or local law enforcement in the U.S. in the second half of 2016 for subscriber information was “generally comparable with the number of demands we received in prior six-month periods,” Verizon said. Those requests totaled 129,249 in the second half of 2016 versus 135,786 in the first half.
Verizon said it rejected 3% of the requests it received in the second half of 2016. “Protecting our customers’ privacy will always be a bedrock commitment at Verizon,” said Craig Silliman, the company’s executive vice president and general counsel. “While we have a legal obligation to provide customer information to law enforcement in response to lawful demands, we take seriously our duty to provide such information only when authorized by law,” Mr. Silliman said in a statement. “To that end, we continue to carefully review each demand we receive and, where appropriate, we require law enforcement agencies to narrow the scope of their demands or correct errors in those demands before we produce some or all of the information sought,” he said. – Tom Leithauser, firstname.lastname@example.org