The number of “cell tower dumps” requested by law enforcement authorities continued to rise in Verizon’s semiannual “transparency report” even as other forms of law enforcement surveillance held steady. Verizon received approximately 8,870 warrants or court orders for cell tower dumps in the first half of 2017, compared with 6,000 for the first half of 2016, Verizon said in a first-half transparency report released yesterday.
Cell tower dumps enable law enforcement authorities to identify the phone numbers of all devices that connected to a specific cell tower at a particular time. For all of 2016, Verizon said it received 14,630 warrants or orders for cell tower dumps; in 2013 the number was 3,200. “This tool is being used much more frequently by law enforcement,” the Verizon report said.
The number of law enforcement requests received by Verizon for other forms of surveillance was largely unchanged in the first half of 2017 compared with other six-month periods. The company received 68,237 subpoenas seeking customer data during the period covered by the latest report, versus 67,433 for the first half of 2016.
The total number of requests for customer data was 138,773 during the first six months of 2017 compared with 135,786 for the comparable period of 2016. “The number of demands that we have received each year has been fairly stable since we made our first report over four years ago,” said Craig Silliman, the company’s executive vice president and general counsel, in a statement accompanying the latest report. “In the first half of 2017 we rejected approximately 3% of the demands we received; that is, we rejected almost 2% of the subpoenas we received and 6% of the warrants and orders we received,” the report said. “We might reject a demand as legally invalid for a number of reasons, including that a different type of legal process is needed for the type of information requested.”
Most of the law enforcement requests sought data about a customer’s account rather than the contents of a customer’s communications, Verizon said. “We are compelled to provide contents of communications to law enforcement relatively infrequently,” the report noted.
“Under the law, law enforcement may seek communications or other content that a customer may store through our services, such as text messages or e-mail. Verizon only releases such stored content to law enforcement with a probable cause warrant; we do not produce stored content in response to a general order or subpoena. During the first half of 2017, we received 4,436 warrants for stored content,” the report said.
Mr. Silliman’s statement accompanying the report included a plug for two pieces of legislation pending in Congress, the ECPA Modernization Act and the International Communications Privacy Act (ICPA). Both bills would attempt to update the processes used to obtain electronic communications from providers such as Verizon.
The ECPA Modernization Act (S 1657) would require government agencies to obtain a warrant from a court based on probable cause before demanding e-mails, text messages, and other electronic communications from a service provider. Under existing law, the warrant requirement is applied unevenly depending on where the data is stored and how long it has been stored. A version of the bill has already cleared the House and was recently introduced in the Senate (TR Daily, July 27).
The International Communications Privacy Act (S 1671) would update the procedures used by law enforcement agencies to obtain data held overseas. “This bill emphasizes that the U.S. government cannot obtain a customer’s stored communications or content without a warrant,” Mr. Silliman said. “In addition, the bill reasonably addresses our concerns about respecting both international law and the privacy needs of our customers outside the U.S.”
“Verizon has long taken the view that the U.S. government cannot unilaterally require a U.S. company to produce data entrusted to it by a non-U.S. customer for storage in one of its data centers outside the U.S.,” he said. “The ICPA bill takes a balanced approach,” Mr. Silliman added. “When the U.S. government seeks the communications of a person in a qualifying foreign country, the U.S. government would be required to provide notice to that country’s government to afford it an opportunity to object, thereby fairly respecting the sovereignty of that country, the privacy of its citizens and, at the same time, the needs of law enforcement.” —Tom Leithauser, email@example.com