From the beginning of January through the end of June, Verizon received a total of 148,903 requests for customer data from U.S. law enforcement agencies from the local, state and federal levels. This is a slight decrease from the average number of requests made during a six-month period last year.
Verzion's new report, released Tuesday, says the company received the following requests:
• 73,342 subpoenas (only used to collect metadata, like phone numbers, call times and IP addresses)
• 3,300 orders for pen registers/trap & trace devices (judge-signed orders for the installation of devices that provide real-time information about phone numbers as they’re dialed)
• 37,327 general orders (any order signed by a judge that’s not a pen register/trap & trace)
• 714 wiretap orders (allowing police to listen into the content of conversations)
• 14,977 warrants (for the information that typically appears on a customer's phone bill, geolocation information, or the content of email or text messages)
• 24,257 emergency requests from law enforcement (which give officials data to help protect people in an emergency that could result in death or serious injury).
‟Although we continue to receive large numbers of demands, the overall percent of our customers affected remains very small,” a Verizon spokesperson said in a statement. The spokesperson also highlighted the company’s opposition to U.S. government demands for Microsoft to turn over user data stored overseas.
‟We received more subpoenas than any other type of legal process in the first half of the year in the United States, but those approximately 72,500 subpoenas sought information regarding only approximately one tenth of one percent of our United States customers. Moreover, each subpoena typically seeks information about a small number of customers: ninety percent of the subpoenas sought information about three or fewer customers. In fact, the average number of customers whose information was demanded through a single subpoena was less than two.”
This is the second such transparency report to be released the national's largest cellular phone provider. Verizon's first was published this January, and it detailed the number of surveillance requests the company received in 2013. While the 2013 report included figures for the entire year, the number of requests Verzion says it received so far this year are nearly 12,000 below half of what it received last year.
Verizon noted that it does not automatically produce information for every request it receives. The company said it rejected 3 percent of all subpoenas, and around 4.5 percent of the orders and warrants, it received for being invalid.
The report added that the company will sometimes decline to produce all of the information requested the law enforcement officials, while not counting those requests as ‟rejected.” Sometimes, the requests ask for information that the company no longer holds or never collected in the first place. Other times, Verizon says, it will push back against requests it feels are overly broad, in an attempt to narrow the scope of the information it has to provide.
"For instance, we may receive a subpoena that properly seeks subscriber information, but also improperly seeks other information, such as stored content, which we cannot provide in response to a subpoena; while we would provide the subscriber information (and thus would not consider this a rejected demand), we would not provide the other information."
Over this same period of time, Verizon received between zero and 999 National Security Letters, which allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to to request customer records without oversight from a judge or a grand jury, as long as the request are related to national security. National Security Letters can only compel a company to reveal the names, addresses, length of service, and toll billing records of a customers, not the content of a conversation or the location of either party.
While government officials often downplay the collection of metadata, experts believe these details can often yield more useful information about individuals than listening to the actual content of their conversations.
The report stated that the government required Verizon to wait six months to disclose information about any orders issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law the authorizes much of the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance powers. During the second half of 2013, the company received under 999 FISA orders asking for the content of a given conversation and under 999 requests that concerned only metadata, according to Verizon.
Companies are prohibited from disclosing details about National Security Letters or FISA court orders, which is why Verizon only gave information about them in extremely general terms.
Verizon isn’t the only organization to produce transparency reports about government efforts to obtain information from private companies. Google, Facebook, and Yahoo all released their own earlier this year. Even the U.S. government got in on the act and released its own report last month through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Verizon's report also included information about demands made by the governments of other counties, which were considerably fewer in number than those made by the U.S. Germany made 670 requests, France made 762, Belgium made 362, and the U.K. made 177. No other country reached into the triple digits.
The company said it will continue to produce these transparency reports on a semi-annual basis.
Photo via Victorgrigas/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)