Verizon admits that governments request more customer information

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.