US Law Enforcement agencies make (only) 1.3 million annual requests for call records
An interesting article in the New York Times reports that in the United States, a Congressional inquiry into mobile phone surveillance shows that US law enforcement agencies requested data from wireless carriers more than 1.3 million times last year.
In Australia, law enforcement agencies make daily requests to carriers for Call Charge Records (CCRs) and Reverse CCRs. Checks are also made of the Integrated Public Number Database (IPND) to see who is registered to use a particular telephone service, or who pays the bills. Checks like these are usually done to assist with criminal investigations. In Victoria, these requests are authorised by a police officer of the rank of Inspector or above, who is independent of the investigation and can make an objective assessment as to whether or not the check is necessary. A Search Warrant is not normally required to obtain this information from carriers.
How is the release of this information lawful? Carriers in Australia are obliged to protect customer data under the Telecommunications Act 1997. There is, however, an exemption which requires carriers to release customer data if the disclosure is “reasonably necessary for the enforcement of the criminal law”.
Electronic Frontiers Australia has a good summary of the Commonwealth legislation.
Like in many parts of the US, costs for these checks are passed back to the requesting agency, which is ultimately the taxpayer.
In terms of data security, the information released to law enforcement agencies in Australia is subject to the Information Privacy Act, and can be used as evidence in criminal cases.
Location sharing. A major difference in the United States is that many mobile telephones are fitted with GPS receivers, and location information is sent with calls to 911. Legislation governing Enhanced 911 is designed to ensure the latitude and longitude of a caller is provided to the emergency service within a very short timeframe, in addition to cell tower location information. Law enforcement agencies can request this historical data from carriers in the United States.
In Australia, only the telephone service billing address is provided to emergency services when a call is made to 000. Sometimes, the cell tower location is available to law enforcement agencies when they make historical enquiries. It depends largely on the carrier, the time elapsed between the call and the enquiry, and whether the information is still available or stored.
How many checks are made in Australia? It might surprise you to learn that 1.3 million requests per year is very low by Australian standards.
The number today might be obtainable by a Freedom of Information request to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). In 2001, an article in The Age by Brendan Nicholson said the ACMA (then the Australian Communications Authority) confirmed that telecommunications companies passed on information to law enforcement and other government agencies 998,548 times in 1999-2000.
The information was released by the ACA in response to a question asked by the Federal Opposition during Senate hearings at the time. This number would have increased significantly over the last 10 years, given our increased population and the increased prevalence of mobile telephone use in society.