We think our phones are private, while law enforcement gets our data

Two individually interesting studies released this week combine to demonstrate how mismatched our privacy expectations and our data uses are.

From the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology‘s Berkeley Consumer Privacy Survey, we learn that most Americans think their mobile phone data is at least as private as their home computer (especially if they’re young):

A plurality of Americans think their mobile carrier shouldn’t keep their location data at all:

From Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) (via GigaOM and the New York Times, other coverage by MSNBC, TPM, and emptywheel), we learn that cell carriers received at least one million requests (via court orders and subpoenas) for subscriber information in 2011: AT&T (PDF) and Verizon (PDF) each received approximately 260,000 requests each, while Sprint (PDF) estimates it received 500,000 subpoenas (does not include court orders). Consumers might be surprised to know that if each AT&T request were for a different customer, one in every 400 AT&T customers would have had their mobile information requested by law enforcement in 2011.

It’s easy to assume a mobile device is private, and more than 75% of Americans wouldn’t let an acquaintance or work colleague borrow their phone (Table 3, Berkeley study). One paper on Social Implications of Mobile Technology (PDF) says “personal communication technologies are distinctive from other network technologies (e.g. the computer) in that they are often worn on body, highly individualized, and regarded as extensions of the self.” Consumers haven’t internalized the fact that this extension of themselves is also an extension of technological tracking. That’s not always negative (consider 911 calls from mobile phones), but ignoring it while law enforcement requests increase and include “cell tower ‘dump[s]’ for data on subscribers who were near a tower during a certain period of time” means unaware consumers will have their information disclosed more and more often.

Consumers might also want to know the law enforcement request data when they choose a network provider: T-Mobile “does not disclose the number of requests we receive from law enforcement annually” (PDF), so don’t choose them if you’re curious about these numbers. Sprint appears to receive disproportionately more subpoenas and far more subpoenas overall: AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all report half the request are subpoenas – so AT&T and Verizon each have 130,000 per year – while Sprint reports 325,000 court orders over five years and an estimate of 500,000 subpoenas in 2011. This may be because of Sprint’s pay-as-you-go sub-brands.

All data from 2011 unless otherwise noted:

  Size rank Subscribers (millions) Law enforcement requests Subpoenas Other (court orders, emergency requests)
Verizon 1 108 260,000 50% 50%
AT&T 2 101 260,400 131,400 129
Sprint 3 53 500,000+ 500,000 325,982 over five years
T-Mobile 4 34 No response 50% 50%
TracFone 5 19 No response    
Clearwire 6 10 Not asked for information    
MetroPCS 7 9 Fewer than 144,000    
Leap/Cricket 8 6 42,500    
U.S. Cellular 9 6 19,734 10,511 9223
C Spire 10? 1 12,500 over five years    

About Jennifer Berk

I'm an analytics and data leader with a marketing and product mindset. I like online newspapers, science fiction and fantasy, and ugly fish.
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