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October 16, 2007

Verizon Admits It Turned Over Customer Data Without A Warrant

by Doug Mataconis

Today’s Washington Post reports that one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies routinely complies with requests for customer data from government agencies without requiring a warrant:

Verizon Communications, the nation’s second-largest telecom company, told congressional investigators that it has provided customers’ telephone records to federal authorities in emergency cases without court orders hundreds of times since 2005.

The company said it does not determine the requests’ legality or necessity because to do so would slow efforts to save lives in criminal investigations.

In an Oct. 12 letter replying to Democratic lawmakers, Verizon offered a rare glimpse into the way telecommunications companies cooperate with government requests for information on U.S. citizens.

Verizon also disclosed that the FBI, using administrative subpoenas, sought information identifying not just a person making a call, but all the people that customer called, as well as the people those people called. Verizon does not keep data on this “two-generation community of interest” for customers, but the request highlights the broad reach of the government’s quest for data.

(…)

From January 2005 to September 2007, Verizon provided data to federal authorities on an emergency basis 720 times, it said in the letter. The records included Internet protocol addresses as well as phone data. In that period, Verizon turned over information a total of 94,000 times to federal authorities armed with a subpoena or court order, the letter said. The information was used for a range of criminal investigations, including kidnapping and child-predator cases and counter-terrorism investigations.

Verizon and AT&T said it was not their role to second-guess the legitimacy of emergency government requests.

What is most surprising about the revelations isn’t so much that Verizon decided that it didn’t need to require the government to obtain a court order for the information, as it is the extent of the information that the FBI and other government agencies were looking for:

Yesterday’s 13-page Verizon letter indicated that the requests went further than previously known. Verizon said it had received FBI administrative subpoenas, called national security letters, requesting data that would “identify a calling circle” for subscribers’ telephone numbers, including people contacted by the people contacted by the subscriber. Verizon said it does not keep such information.

“The privacy concerns are exponential each generation you go away from the suspect’s number,” said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney with the EFF. “This shows that further investigation by Congress and the inspector general is critical.”

Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the FBI may have improperly obtained phone, bank and other records of thousands of people inside the United States since 2003 by using national security letters and exigent letters, or emergency demands for records.

Now, Verizon and other telecom companies are seeking formal immunity from any civil liability for complying with these government request, and, on some level, they do have a point:

AT&T and Verizon both argued that the onus should not be on the companies to determine whether the government has lawfully requested customer records. To do so in emergency cases would “slow lawful efforts to protect the public,” wrote Randal S. Milch, senior vice president of legal and external affairs for Verizon Business, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.

“Public officials, not private businessmen, must ultimately be responsible for whether the legal judgments underlying authorized surveillance activities turn out to be right or wrong — legally or politically,” wrote Wayne Watts, AT&T’s senior executive vice president and general counsel. “Telecommunications carriers have a part to play in guarding against official abuses, but it is necessarily a modest one.”

While it is distressing that Verizon and AT&T were so willing to bend over backwards with what may well have been unauthorized requests for information, it’s not their job to enforce the provisions of the Fourth Amendment. That responsibility lies with law enforcement and, ultimately, with the Federal Courts who authorize the warrants to begin with.

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3 Comments

  1. it’s not their job to enforce the provisions of the Fourth Amendment

    True, but isn’t there more than just the 4th at work here? Don’t the telecommunications laws specifically forbid them from divulging certain info?

    Comment by Jeff Molby — October 16, 2007 @ 11:28 am
  2. It’s very hard for me to find fault with Verison. Imagine being in Verison’s position: a federal agent demands phone records. What are you going to do, tell them no? When you tell the government no, you run the risk of being audited, regulated or worse.

    I’m not sure you can say that what Verison is doing is voluntary; government doesn’t ask nicley, government uses force.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — October 16, 2007 @ 2:19 pm
  3. No, Stephen, they asked nicely with the implied threat of force. Qwest stood up to them successfully. If the others had done so as well, it would have weakened the government’s position.

    Instead, Verizon and the rest surrendered without a single shot being fired. They sold out their customers.

    These aren’t mom and pop businesses. The telecoms have a lot of lawyers on staff; it’s not too much to ask that they at least fight a couple rounds against the govt before capitulating.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — October 16, 2007 @ 4:44 pm

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