Law enforcement officials are generally able to obtain records of who you have called and emailed and what IP addresses you have visited with a legal demand known as a pen register or trap-and-trace order. This requires a lower threshold for suspicion of criminal activity than the warrant required to dip into real-time communications. And though there is a legal requirement that public records be issued announcing how often the federal government makes such requests, the Department of Justice hasn’t issued this data since 2004.
That gap in knowledge inspired Christopher Soghoian, a graduate student at the University of Indiana, to find an indirect way of determining how often the government is asking telecommunications companies for such info. When the feds get information from telecommunications companies, they generally pay for the privilege.
Soghoian, who recently helped publicize the fact that Sprint Nextel handed over GPS data to law enforcement agencies 8 million times from September 2008 to October 2009, filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to extract at least 12 different telecom, computer search, and social networking companies’ standards and practices regarding such services, which would include the prices they charged the government. He figured that if he knew the prices and could see the invoices paid by the government, he could make a reasonable guess as to how often the government demands communications data.
Yahoo! and Verizon objected to Soghoian’s FOIA requests in letters to the U.S. Marshals Service, the government division to whom they had freely given their price lists. Verizon, which conceded that it receives “tens of thousands” of information requests from the government each year, argued that publicizing that fact might lead customers to wonder whether their information had been shared with the feds, something Verizon doesn’t want to have to tell them. Yahoo! worried that if Soghoian gets his hands on the information he seeks, he will use it “to ‘shame’ Yahoo! and other companies—and to ‘shock’ their customers.” r