More than 1.3M cell phone records requested in 2011 - WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

Fuzzy rules make it easier for the law to track you

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(RNN) - Every day in 2011, cell phone service providers received more than 3,000 requests for phone records from law enforcement officials - and that number is rising.

The information comes from nine mobile phone companies, which collectively fielded more than 1.3 million requests for information from officials last year.

The types of requested information includes things as simple as a person's phone number and address to the content of their text messages and voicemails.

According to two companies, the number of requests goes up approximately 15 percent each year.

Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, TracFone Wireless, MetroPCS, Cricket, U.S. Cellular and C Spire Wireless responded to questions sent out by Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-MA, co-chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus.

Markey sent letters to the companies after Freedom of Information Act requests from the American Civil Liberties Union revealed in April that a majority of law enforcement agencies across the country engage in cell phone tracking without any national - or even regional - standard set up.

"We need to know how law enforcement differentiates between records of innocent people, and those that are subjects of investigation, as well as how it handles, administers and disposes of this information," Markey said.

The number of requests doesn't necessarily reflect how much information officials get.

Each request may ask for multiple bits of information from the provider, or ask for information on multiple users.

Some officials even request information about calls processed at specific cell towers. This nets a huge amount of data, much of which is insignificant to a particular investigation.

"The cell phone data of innocent Americans is almost certainly swept up in these requests," said Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU. "Without clear safeguards and standards for how law enforcement gathers and stores location information, there is a massive privacy gap that leaves all of us vulnerable."

Some companies seem inclined to agree on the need for clearer rules when it comes to what cell phone location information officials have access to.

Currently, U.S. law allows cell phone companies to provide basic subscriber information to law enforcement or investigative bodies when there is "reasonable grounds to believe that … the records or other information sought are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation."

This is a much lower bar than would have to be met to secure a search warrant.

Further, some courts have ruled a warrant is required for cell phone location information, but others say law enforcement only need a court order.

"This is an evolving area of law and one which Sprint believes requires further clarification by Congress," Vonya B. McCann, senior vice president of government affairs at Sprint Nextel, wrote in a response letter to Markey.

Sprint Nextel, the third largest cell phone provider in the country, received about 52,000 court orders for wiretaps; 77,500 court orders for the installation of a pen register, or trap and trace device; and 196,400 court orders for location information.

Sprint Nextel also received about 500,000 subpoenas for subscriber information. Most of those requests were for multiple individuals and not single subscribers.

There currently are two identical bills making their way through Congress. In June 2011, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, HR-1268 and S-1212, was introduced. The bill would require a warrant for all cell phone tracking information requests. The bill has not come up for vote.

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