70,000 Subpoenas In Six Months: A Peek at How Carriers Serve the Law

The carriers are used to hearing a knock at their door from the feds. They’re not there for someone in the building but want, as Jack Webb used to say in Dragnet*, “just the facts, ma’am.”  Verizon recently published its “Transparency Report” showing the staggering number of requests (some in the form of subpoenas and warrants) they have gotten in the past six months.

They received 69,596 subpoenas from law enforcement in the United States in the first half of 2018. Subpoenas are generally used by law enforcement to obtain “the type of information that appears on a customer’s phone bill,” according to the report. The subpoenas they received sought information regarding 118,883 information points, such as a telephone number, used to identify a customer. These customer identifiers are also referred to as “selectors.” On average, each subpoena sought information about 1.7 selectors. Verizon does not release contents of communications (such as text messages or emails) or cell site location information in response to subpoenas.

In addition, they received 30,361 court orders in the first half of 2018. These court orders must be signed by a judge, indicating that the law enforcement officer has made the requisite showing required under the law to the judge. The orders compel the carriers to provide some type of information to the government.  

A small subset, 4,432, of the orders they received in the past six months required them to provide access to data in real-time. A “pen register order” requires them to provide law enforcement with real-time access to phone numbers as they are dialed, while a trap and trace order compels them to provide law enforcement with real-time access to the phone numbers from incoming calls. Verizon does not provide any content in response to pen register or trap and trace orders.

The carrier received 13,552 warrants in the same the period.  To obtain a warrant, a law enforcement officer must show a judge that there is “probable cause” to believe that the evidence sought is related to a crime. This is a higher standard than the standard for a general order. A warrant may be used to obtain stored content (such as text message content or email content), location information or more basic subscriber or transactional information.

On June 22, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States decided United States v. Carpenter; a case addressing whether law enforcement may obtain an order or must obtain a probable cause warrant in order to compel a wireless carrier to release historical cell site location information, Inside Towers reported.  A majority of the Court concluded that a warrant was necessary.  Since the Court’s ruling, Verizon has accepted only probable cause warrants before releasing historical location information.

(*yes, I am that old, ed)

By Jim Fryer, Managing Editor, Inside Towers

August 9, 2018       

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