Law enforcement officials used to present a phone company with a search warrant, court order, or subpoena when they wanted information from a person's private phone records. No more.
Today, according to data obtained by Congress from cell-phone carriers, law enforcement makes 1.3 million demands each year for subscriber information. Not all of these requests come with judicial authorization. Investigators are often interested in phone tracking, text messages, and caller location.
The companies turn over thousands of records a day. AT&T, the nation's largest carrier, gets an average of 700 requests for records from law enforcement every day, one-third of them emergency matters that don't require subpoenas.
Other requests go through despite a lack of proper paperwork, signatures, and other requirements. Sometimes requests have no apparent justification. Cell carriers report increases in law-enforcement requests for records of 12 percent to 16 percent a year since 2007.
The companies say they want to respond to law enforcement's valid needs to get access to information in a timely way. But the lack of consistent standards for turning over data has left them open to lawsuits and consumer anger. It also invites illegal fishing expeditions by some law enforcement agencies.
Congress should devise rules that are clear enough to satisfy carriers, law enforcement, and civil liberties defenders who keep watch on consumers' behalf.