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Verizon admits that governments request more customer information

Published time: January 23, 2014 17:37
Reuters / Dado Ruvic

Reuters / Dado Ruvic

Verizon Communications this week became the first American company of its kind to publish information about the number of requests for user data they received last year from federal investigators and law enforcement agencies.

Verizon’s so-called transparency report, released by the telecom giant on Wednesday, reveals that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in the United States requested customer information no fewer than 320,000 times during the last calendar year. The country that sent in the second most requests was Germany with 2,996.

“Overall, we saw an increase in the number of demands we received in 2013,” the telecommunication company admitted, “as compared to 2012.”

Within that batch from the US, Verizon acknowledged, were roughly 164,000 subpoenas, 70,000 court orders, 36,000 warrants and roughly 50,000 emergency requests for information issued during extreme circumstances.

Around 7,800 of those court orders required Verizon to provide authorities with customer information — either related to phone or internet use — in real time, and another 1,500 or so wiretap requests also compelled the company to let law enforcement monitor the content transmitted either online or over the phone as it happened. Around 14,500 warrants were received from agencies interested in accumulating stored content from Verizon, including but not limited to emails and text messages sent through their service.

Additionally, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation compelled Verizon last year for customer information through National Security Letters, or NSLs, between 1,000 and 2,000 times. The FBI does not need to go to court to get a NSL authorized, Verizon admitted, but rather must have a senior official certify in writing that the information requested could be crucial to an investigation. Companies are forbidden from explicitly acknowledging how many NSLs they receive, however, and those letters are regularly issued by the federal government with gag orders that limit the customers in question from ever hearing about a potential probe.

During a speech from Washington, DC last week, US President Barack Obama said that telecoms will be allowed in the future to release more information to the public about top-secret NSLs — a decision that Verizon hailed in their report.

“In the United States, the government is especially suited to report the number of demands it makes from such companies,” Randal Milch, Verizon’s general counsel and executive vice president of public police, law and security, wrote in an accompanying blog post published this week. A framework for the government to tell Congress about the number of wiretap orders, pen register and trap and trace orders, certain emergency requests and national security letters already exists, he said, adding, “The United States government should expand on this existing framework and report annually on the numbers of all types of demands made by federal and state law enforcement to telecommunications and internet companies for data regarding their customers.”

Milch’s remarks were echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union, who endorsed their report but insisted more should still be disclosed.

“We applaud Verizon for finally making it clear how much information is being demanded by the United States government without a warrant, including location information, and for also pushing for even greater transparency,” Nicole Ozer of the ACLU’s Technology and Civil Liberties officer said when the report was issued.

At the same time, however, Ozer admitted that Verizon’s latest disclosure proved true one of the ACLU’s biggest fears.

“As we long suspected, the vast majority of the demands for information lack a warrant,” she wrote.

Also at issue, she added, was information about the actual number of accounts that were surveilled through these requests. While Verizon has indeed published numbers pertaining to the amount of requests submitted to their company, nowhere in their report do they say that each request is limited to a certain number of customers.

“A single subpoena could, for example, request information oneveryone,” TechDirt blogger Mike Masnick wrote on Wednesday. “While that may be an extreme example, the point is that the number of requests doesn't really tell you very much overall.”

Masnick went on to recall that a legal document disclosed by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden last year revealed that the government had compelled Verizon for the telephony metadata pertaining to millions of customers with a single order authorized under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.

“Where are the other Section 215 bulk-collection orders?” ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo tweeted earlier this week. “Hard to have a ‘vigorous debate’ [without] them.”

Mr. Snowden is expected to answer questions from the public during an online chat later on Thursday. His remarks will come one week after Pres. Obama announced a handful of changes to the National Security Agency documents he helped disclose to the press starting last year.

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