Representative Markey floats bill to rein in cell phone surveillance

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 09, 2012 6:04 PM
Representative Markey floats bill to rein in cell phone surveillance

By Jasmin Melvin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Representative Edward Markey unveiled draft legislation on Thursday that would increase oversight of the growing number of requests wireless carriers receive from U.S. law enforcement agencies for their customers' phone records.

Markey released data last month from nine wireless carriers revealing more than 1.3 million requests for cell phone records last year.

"The startling number of requests made for the personal information of mobile phone users strongly suggests that clear, consistent rules should be established to protect the privacy of innocent people," said Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Neither law enforcement nor companies are required to report such requests, making Markey's release of information from the companies the first public accounting of law enforcement's use of cell phone surveillance.

Markey's draft bill would make such reporting routine by mandating regular disclosures from law enforcement on the nature and number of wireless surveillance requests made.

The draft would also curtail broad cell tower dumps, where law enforcement requests information on everyone near a specific cell tower at a given time, and hold requests for location tracking up to higher scrutiny, requiring probable cause and a judge's approval.

"We need to ensure that law enforcement no longer has carte blanche to track innocent Americans," Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in support of Markey's proposal.

Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, sent letters to nine wireless carriers in June asking for information on the volume and scope of the requests after The New York Times reported in April that cell phone tracking had become a common practice for police with little or no oversight.

Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc; AT&T Inc; Sprint Nextel Corp; T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG; MetroPCS Communications Inc; C Spire Wireless; Cricket Communications Inc; TracFone, a unit of Mexico's American Movil; and U.S. Cellular responded to Markey's inquiry.

The wireless carriers, in their responses to Markey, said they only release information when ordered by subpoena or if law enforcement officials certify there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury.

Under Markey's draft legislation, law enforcement officials who obtain information during an emergency situation would have to provide a signed, sworn statement after the ordeal justifying the need for the emergency access.

The draft bill also asks the Federal Communications Commission to devise regulations setting a limit on how long wireless carriers can keep customers' personal information.

"With searches and seizures now happening in cyberspace, this legislation will update the 4th amendment for the 21st century," said Markey, who co-chairs the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus.

The Obama administration is looking for ways to give consumers more control over personal information while surfing the Internet on laptops and mobile phones.

(Corrects headline to Rep. Markey, not Senator)

(Editing by Andre Grenon)