Thanks to a report in today's New York Times, we know cell phone companies are increasingly besieged with requests for phone records from the U.S. government. But who's answering all those requests? It turns out, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and others hire a veritable army of employees to deliver its customers' private information to Uncle Sam. The data in the Times story comes from a congressional inquiry of cellphone carriers available in full on Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey's website. While the phone companies were often vague about how they responded to surveillance requests from the government, most of them got very specific about how many people they employed to process the requests. Here's the breakdown for each company:
Obviously, the big outlier here is Sprint, which while being the third biggest cellphone carrier, has the most employees dedicated to answering surveillance requests by far at 221. In its description to Rep. Markey, that number includes 36 analysts who received the court orders for wiretaps and trace devices, 175 additional analysts to respond to subpoenas and other requests, and "10 managers and supervisors" who oversee the entire team of analysts. Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless, the largest carrier, seems to be skipping by on the cheap with its measly 70 employees. (AT&T, the no. 2 carrier, has 100 employees tending to the surveillance requests.)
Comparatively speaking, it's not immediately clear why Sprint should have more employees on surveillance compliance than the competition. If you compare it to Verizon, for instance, it serves less customers (Verizon has 108.7 million subscribers, Sprint has 55 million) and hires a similar amount of employees in total (Verizon employs 85,000, Sprint employs 82,000). One possible explanation could be the amount of requests each company is swamped with every year. As The New York Times' Eric Lichtblau pointed out this morning, "Sprint, which did not break down its figures in as much detail as other carriers, led all companies last year in reporting what amounted to at least 1,500 data requests on average a day." For an entire year, that equals about 547,000 requests. Verizon, on the other hand, says it received approximately 260,000 requests for customer information in the last year. Given that, it looks like Sprint is being bogged down by requests disproportionately. CATO's Julian Sanchez points to a possible explanation: in order to handle the number of law enforcement requests, cell phone companies have been developing automated systems to ease the paperwork burdens, which only makes it easier for law enforcement agencies to request more data. In Sprint's case, the company has deployed an interface for called LSite, which, Sanchez writes, "allows requests to be submitted electronically and turned around extremely fast."
In any account, for civil liberties advocates, the growing bureaucracy of people delivering surveillance information to the government is a worrying trend. However, law enforcement officials say the rise in cell phone use means an increase in these types of requests is not only inevitable but "vital" to catching criminals. But any way you look at it, you can bet the big cell phone carriers are looking at each other's responses and seeing how they can reduce the size of their surveillance compliance teams to stay competitive and reduce costs.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.