UPDATED: Report: Verizon Wireless gave AP reporters' cell phone records to DOJ in leak probe

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) gave the personal cell phone records of at least two journalists from The Associated Press to the government as part of a wide-ranging seizure of telephone records by the Department of Justice, according to the New York Times. Verizon said it complies with lawful requests for information in investigations.

According to an unnamed AP employee cited in the report, the carrier gave at least two of reporters' personal cellphone records to the government. The sweeping request for the records has caused a furor in Washington, D.C., and around the country since Monday when the AP disclosed that the DOJ had sought the records without attempting to notify the AP so that the AP could try to get a court to block the subpoena of the records. The Justice Department has defended its actions, arguing that "the subpoenas were limited in both time and scope." The DOJ was investigating who leaked classified information to the AP about a thwarted terrorist plot to bomb an airliner, but the DOJ's seizure of the records has drawn condemnation from civil liberties and media groups.

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Debi Lewis told both the New York Times and Slate that the company "complies with legal processes for requests for information by law enforcement," but declined to comment further on any specific case.

Carriers giving subscriber information to law enforcement agencies is not at all uncommon. In fact, according to NYT report from July 2012, in 2011 carriers said that they responded to at least 1.3 million demands for subscriber information from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information as part of investigations.

"We understand your position that these subpoenas should have been more narrowly drawn, but in fact, consistent with Department policy, the subpoenas were limited in both time and scope," Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in a letter to the AP on Tuesday. He added that "there was a basis to believe the numbers were associated with AP personnel involved in the reporting of classified information. The subpoenas were limited to a reasonable period of time and did not seek the content of any calls."

Privacy advocates said the status quo is unacceptable. "This is the phone companies putting the interest of law enforcement before their customers, and that's wrong," Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Huffington Post. "None of them tell users. They all suck."

Last year the FCC opened a proceeding on how wireless carriers are handling their subscribers' personal information, and how the agency should oversee this area. The FCC already has a stake in the issue thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gives the FCC authority over how customer proprietary network information (CPNI) can be used by telecom carriers.

For more:
- see this NYT article
- see this Slate article
- see this Huffington Post article

Related Articles:
Verizon patents mobile surveillance system that could track children, elderly
Sprint, Verizon and AT&T on users' privacy: We aren't the gatekeepers anymore
Legislators move to curb cell phone records

Article updated May 17 at 4:50 p.m. ET to reflect that The New York Times report of Verizon giving personal cell phone records of AP journalists to the government was based on the allegations of an unnamed AP employee. The article was further updated to clarify Verizon's position on complying with requests from law enforcement.

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