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US phone companies earned £16.2m selling customer information to the police in 2012

Earlier this year, US Senator Edward Markey from Massachusetts requested that American telecom providers answer a series of questions about the information they provided to law enforcement. These included everything from wire taps to controversial "cell-tower dumps."

What may surprise you is that the telecoms often charge investigators fees for that information — which amounted to well over $26.6 million (£16.2 million) in 2012. But what that number really means is actually far more complicated.

Wait — How much?

That's a rough estimate, taken from the documents published by Senator Markey. Here's the breakdown for number of information requests and fees collected in 2012:

  • AT&T: 297,500 requests, and $10,298,000
  • Verizon: 270,000 requests, and "Less than $5 million"
  • T-Mobile: 297,350 requests, and $11,000,000
  • Cricket: 59,000 requests, but did not disclose the money earned
  • C Spire: 2,350 requests, and "less than $55,000"
  • US Cellular: "Over 20,588 requests," and $241,000
  • Sprint declined to reveal the requested information publicly, saying it preferred to discuss the issue face to face. With that in mind, $26,594,000 is a low estimate.

What kind of information?

For the most part, this is the kind of data collection the public likes. We want the police to catch criminals, to tap criminals' phones to catch more criminals, and so on. Though most of the major telecoms are cooperating with the NSA's mass surveillance programs, those seem to fall squarely outside these figures.

But there's a dark side to these figures. For instance, they include the "cell tower dumps," where US law enforcement defines a period of time and the telecoms provide a list of every number that connected to that tower in a given period. While certainly smaller than the NSA's programs, it is still massive. Cricket, one of the smallest companies involved, reported that their cell tower dumps are limited to two hours, but that they observe about 175 calls per hour. Scale that up many times over for Verizon or AT&T.

Geolocation information is also part of the requests processed by the telecoms. AT&T, for instance, said it fielded 77,800 geolocation requests in 2012. Of these, 31,000 were historical and 46,800 were provided in real-time. But at a glance, pen registers (that is, recordings of what numbers were called by a particular line) and associated observations tend to make up the bulk of requests.

Worse yet, as we reported earlier, these cell tower dumps and other observations are sometimes authorised without a warrant. That means that there's no judge or authority beyond the requesting law enforcement agency observing the requests.

Interestingly, Senator Markey inquired if the telecoms were aware of law enforcement agencies utilising their own tracking equipment, such as "Stingray phone trackers."

All but one of the telecoms denied such knowledge, except C Spire.

"C Spire is aware that several federal law enforcement agencies and at least one municipal police department have access to their own tracking equipment," the company wrote.

What does it mean?

In their responses, each of the telecoms used careful wording to explain that they are authorised to collect fees from law enforcement in order to offset the cost of aiding investigations. Many also point out that they frequently do not charge law enforcement.

Many of the telecoms assert, and they are almost certainly correct, that they do not actually make money from handing over information. "AT&T's charges are intended to recoup at least a portion of our costs incurred in providing these [required] responses, and we believe we fall short of our actual costs," wrote AT&T. "For example, the scope of providing CALEA compliance alone is so broad and touches so many different areas within our company that capturing actual costs is virtually impossible." Ah, our old friend CALEA.

It's possible that the telecoms are releasing this information (sometimes highly detailed information) because they want to play ball with the powers that be. AT&T, Verizon, and their ilk have a lot at stake with a forthcoming spectrum auction and threats to break apart monopolistic phone companies.

It's also possible that the telecoms are perfectly happy to release this information because they don't want to be collecting it in the first place. AT&T says that they employ "100 full time workers" 24 hours a day, seven days a week in order to comply with requests and reject 1,300 requests last year.

Cricket employs a third party agency in order to handle all their requests. No doubt these companies prefer not to be burdened with sifting through information requests, and having to determine which are legal and which are improper.

But all that aside, one thing is certain: a lot of data, and a lot of money, is changing hands.