The carriers report that they turn over records thousands of times a day in response to court orders, subpoenas and other requests. These demands for private records come from all levels of government—from local cop precincts to intelligence agencies at the state and federal levels.
Over the last five years the number of requests has increased annually between 12 and 16 percent, the New York Times reported July 8.
Verizon has a team of 70 employees working around-the-clock seven days a week dealing with these requests. Sprint has 36 analysts reviewing court orders for wiretaps and trace devices and another 175 to respond to court orders for subscriber information.
Under federal law, companies say they generally require a search warrant, a court order or a formal subpoena to release such information. But in cases that cops or government agents claim are an emergency, a simple request can be enough.
In addition, the FBI is permitted by law to permanently gag service providers from revealing that a demand for information was made, preventing them from notifying either their customers or the public.
In a case filed last year in California, one phone company has challenged an order from the FBI to turn over its records.
The case is shrouded in government-ordered secrecy. The person who received the FBI request—in the form of a “national security letter”—is legally barred from acknowledging the case or even the existence of the letter to anyone but his lawyers.
National security letters demanding private information date back to the 1980s, but were expanded significantly with passage of the USA Patriot Act in 2001.
Since this law was passed, the FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of letters seeking private telecommunications and financial records of U.S. residents. The NSL statute permits the FBI to issue demands for records and gag provisions without court authorization.
According to the Department of Justice, the FBI in 2000 made 8,500 requests for records of numbers called by a phone or the “to” and “from” lines of emails. In 2011 the figure had increased to 16,511. If you add requests demanding only the name of the subscriber associated with an account, the number jumped to more than 49,000 in 2006.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation brought the challenge on behalf of its client, who they are barred from naming, arguing that the national security letter law is unconstitutional.
The Department of Justice aggressively fired back, filing a civil complaint, saying that the recipient, by challenging the statute’s legality, was “interfer[ing] with the United States’ vindication of its sovereign interests in law enforcement, counterintelligence, and protecting national security.”
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