Verizon Says U.S. Government Data Requests Top 320,000Nick Turner and Scott Moritz
Verizon Communications Inc., publishing its first annual report on law-enforcement requests for customer information, said inquiries from U.S. federal, state and local authorities topped 320,000 last year.
Of the requests for customer data, more than 164,000 were subpoenas and almost 71,000 were court orders, New York-based Verizon said in the report. Most of the inquiries pertained to consumers, rather than corporate customers. The total climbed from 2012, the company said, without providing a specific figure for that year.
“We do not release customer information unless authorized by law, such as a valid law enforcement demand or an appropriate request in an emergency involving the danger of death or serious physical injury,” Verizon said.
The report follows an uproar set off by the leaks of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who sparked an international debate about privacy and the reach of government in the post-Sept. 11 world. Verizon announced last year that it would start publishing the number of requests it receives in an effort to boost transparency.
Verizon’s numbers suggest that agencies still lean more heavily on phone-service providers than Internet companies for information. Google Inc., operator of the world’s largest search engine, received fewer than 11,000 requests for user data from the U.S. government in the first six months of 2013.
Government agencies ask for phone records for a variety of reasons. A wiretap, for instance, could be used by law enforcement to monitor calls in order to solve or prevent a crime. Verizon said it received almost 1,500 of those requests last year. With a subpoena, a prosecutor may be seeking evidence relevant to a court case. Phone companies also provide information to public-safety call centers when an emergency 911 call is placed.
Between 1,000 and 2,000 of the requests in 2013 were National Security Letters, which may come from an agency such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Verizon said. This information can’t be used in an ordinary criminal or civil case, the company said.
“We are not permitted to disclose the exact number of National Security Letters that were issued to us, but the government will allow us to provide a broad range,” Verizon said.
Verizon also received requests from foreign law-enforcement agencies for customer data, though it is limited in how much it can disclose. Outside the U.S., the country with the most inquiries was Germany. It made almost 3,000 requests last year, followed by France’s 1,347 and Belgium’s 473.
“These figures reflect requests made by law enforcement within a country for data stored within that same country,” Verizon said. “It is very rare that we receive a request from a government for data stored in another country.”
When this does occur, the company said it directs the agency to diplomatic channels.
Verizon also is asked to limit access to certain websites within foreign countries. In Colombia, for instance, it blocked about 1,200 websites that the government believed contained child pornography.
Verizon Wireless, the mobile-phone carrier that the company co-owns with Vodafone Group Plc, had 270,000 U.S. government and law enforcement requests in 2012, according to a letter sent to Senator Ed Markey in October. Of those inquiries, 135,000 were subpoenas, about 40,000 were court orders, and 30,000 were warrants.
AT&T, Verizon’s biggest rival, expects to release its own transparency report early this year, said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for the Dallas-based company. In 2012, AT&T had a total of 297,500 government and law enforcement requests, according to a letter to Markey’s office.