Despite a reduction in requests for wiretaps the number of law enforcement requests for information from telecommunications companies is increasing. The major cell phone companies responded to 1.3 million requests for information from law enforcement agencies last year. At the same time the number of wiretap requests from state and Federal officials declined by 14 per cent to 2732. Federal judges approved 792 requests and state judges approved 1940 requests for wiretaps.
Requests for information to cell phone providers cover a wide range of information including the location of the cell phone (and the person using it) as well as the text of text messages. One type of request is called a tower dump. It asks for all phones that use a particular cell phone tower during a specific period of time. The location can be found by triangulating the cell phone hits on the towers.
What is particularly troubling about the law enforcement request is that they are often made without a warrant or a showing of probable cause that the information is necessary. For example, probable cause must show that specific information is needed about a specific individual in order to investigate a specific crime. But the tower dumps provide information about telephone call made by thousands of individuals without any showing of individualized probable cause. The Federal government claims that probable cause is not needed to obtain cell phone locational information since the information is freely available without a search. But the Supreme Court has not ruled on this matter. On the other hand privacy advocates argue that telephone calls, including texting are extremely private and should not be examined without a judicially signed search warrant based upon a declaration of probable cause.