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5 key takeaways from Verizon’s first transparency report

Seven months after Edward Snowden's first leaks, Verizon takes a stab at transparency. 


Kevin Collier


Posted on Jan 22, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 8:33 pm CDT

Seven months after becoming the first of many American communications companies proven to be collecting data on its customers for the National Security Agency, Verizon has issued its first transparency report.

It’s the first phone company to do so—and it’s a concession. When Edward Snowden first revealed that the NSA got information from major U.S. Internet companies like Facebook and Google, those involved quickly protested having knowingly given up any of their users’ info. But Verizon and AT&T made no such claim, and one Verizon executive dismissed the effort as “grandstanding.”

Verizon, like other major phone companies, is part of the NSA’s metadata collection program, and receives an order from the secretive FISA court every three months for all phone records where at least one number is American. (While that program still exists, it’s in a strange limbo at the moment: President Obama declared Friday that the NSA would no longer directly access that metadata without a court order, though he’s still working out who will store it.)

So what’s in it? Unfortunately, nothing juicy on the NSA. Like most companies, Verizon’s legally barred from sharing how many FISC orders it gets, and it doesn’t give any indication it’ll fight to do so. It also keeps its stats related to how many government requests for data that it gets, rather than specifying how many it honored. It does, however, offer a few insights:

  • Verizon receives somewhere between 1,000 and 1,999 National Security Letters in 2013. That refers to FBI demands—which come with a legal gag order, but don’t require a warrant—for information that doesn’t fully identify a person.
  • Unsurprisingly, given its size, it was subpoenaed by courts a total of 164,184 times last year. It estimates 50,000 emergency law enforcement requests for its information.
  • Perhaps most striking is how often Verizon was instructed to give a government agency direct access to track someone’s phone calls: about 7,800 times. Roughly 1,5000 times, it was instructed to actually give a government agency a wiretap to listen to a person’s phone calls in real time.
  • Never forget: Your cell phone is a means of tracking where you are. Specifics are vague, but the company says it received roughly 35,000 demands for customers’ location data in 2012.
  • Verizon honored five governments’ demand to block all its customers in that country from viewing certain websites. Most striking, it took out 37 sites in Belgium and two in Portugal for “online gambling or copyright issues.” It also blocked around 1,200 sites the Colombian government said contained child pornography, 424 sites Greece said featured online gambling, and a number of sites in India, though Indian law prohibits revealing specifics.

So thanks, Snowden. It took more than half a year, but now we have a little more data to fill out how much phone companies share with the government.

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III

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*First Published: Jan 22, 2014, 8:49 pm CST