AP Exclusive: Data Brokers Get by Subpoenas
By TED BRIDIS and JOHN SOLOMON, Associated Press Writers
Federal and local police across the country -- as well as some others
among the nation's best-known companies -- have been gathering
Americans' phone records from private data brokers without subpoenas
These people, many of whom market aggressively on the Internet, have
broken into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into
revealing information and sometimes acknowledged that their practices
violate laws, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Legal experts and privacy advocates said police reliance on private
vendors or otherwise obtain information by committing such acts raises
civil liberties questions.
Those using data brokers include agencies of the Homeland Security and
Justice departments -- including the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service --
and municipal police departments in California, Florida, Georgia and
Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use
"We are requesting any and all information you have regarding the
above cell phone account and the account holder ... including account
activity and the account holder's address," Ana Bueno, a police
investigator in Redwood City, Calif., wrote in October to PDJ
Investigations of Granbury, Texas.
An agent in Denver for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Anna
Wells, sent a similar request on March 31 on Homeland Security
stationery: "I am looking for all available subscriber information for
the following phone number," Wells wrote to a corporate alias used by
Congressional investigators estimated the U.S. government spent $30
million last year buying personal data from private brokers. But that
number likely understates the breadth of transactions, since brokers
said they rarely charge law enforcement agencies.
A lawmaker who has investigated the industry said Monday he was
concerned about data brokers.
"There's a good chance there are some laws being broken, but it's not
really clear precisely which laws, said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., head
of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee that
plans to begin hearings Wednesday.
Documents gathered by Whitfield's committee show police officers and
data brokers use trickery, impersonation and even technology to try to
gather Americans' phone records. "They can basically obtain any
information about anybody on any subject," Whitfield said.
James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four such data brokers,
likened the companies' activities to the National Security Agency,
which reportedly compiles the phone records of ordinary Americans.
"The government is doing exactly what these people are accused of
doing," Bearden said. "These people are being demonized. These are
people who are partners with law enforcement on a regular basis."
Essentially, the government turns a blind eye to their illegal
Many of the executives summoned to testify before Congress this week
plan to refuse to answer questions, invoking their Fifth Amendment
right against self incrimination.
Larry Slade, PDJ's lawyer, said no one at the company violated laws,
but he acknowledged, "I'm not sure that every law enforcement agency
in the country would agree with that analysis. Of course, a lot of
them (law enforcement agencies) violarted the same laws we are
accused of violating."
PDJ always provided help to police for free. "Agencies from all across
the country took advantage of it," Slade said. "Having them on our
side helps a great deal. They're not going to look a gift horse in the
The police agencies told AP they used the data brokers because it was
quicker and easier than subpoenas, and police lawyers claim their
actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against
unlawful search and seizure.
Some agencies, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement,
instructed agents to stop the practice after congressional
inquiries. Police in Orem, Utah, likewise plan to end the practice
because of concerns about "questionable methods" used by the data
brokers, Lt. Doug Edwards said. "Now that the heat is on, no one
seems to know anything about it."
The records also list some of America's most famous corporate names --
from automakers to insurers to banks -- as purchasing information on
private citizens from data brokers, which often help companies track
down delinquent customers.
For instance, a 2003 customer list for data broker Universal
Communications Company listed Ford Motor Credit Co., the automaker's
lending arm, as the single largest purchaser of phone toll records,
paying $17,435 to buy such data that year. In all, Ford's lending arm
spent more than $50,000 with that data broker that year. Ford also
paid $9,000 to another such company, Global Information Group, in
2004, the records state.
Also on UCC's or Global Information's paying client list was the
insurer State Farm's banking arm, Chrysler's consumer lending arm,
Enterprise Rent-A-Car and banking giants Wells Fargo and Wachovia
At least 50 departments of Wachovia made data requests in 2004,
accumulating thousands of dollars in charges. Some companies could not
provide an immediate explanation when called for comment Tuesday.
Ford Motor Credit spokeswoman Meredith Libby said Tuesday her company
used the vendors in the past to help locate customers who weren't
paying and had disappeared but the companies "are no longer on our
approved vendor lists."
Asked why Ford would need phone toll records, Libby said her company
"did not necessarily say (to the vendor), `Give us this specific piece
of data, but rather help us to find this person,'" and the charges for
phone records were part of the process.
Wells Fargo said it ended the relationship with its data broker late
last year. State Farm's banking arm made "limited use of data obtained
from third parties to augment our collections operations," spokesman
Mia Jazo-Harris said.
None of the police agencies interviewed by AP said they researched
their data brokers to determine how they gather sensitive information
like names associated with unlisted numbers, records of phone calls,
e-mail aliases -- even tracing a person's location using their cellular
"If it's on the Internet and it's been commended to us, we wouldn't do
a full-scale investigation," Marshals Service spokesman David Turner
said. "We don't knowingly go into any source that would be illegal. We
were not aware, I'm fairly certain, what technique was used by these
At Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spokesman Dean Boyd said
agents did not pay for phone records and sought approval from
U.S. prosecutors before making requests. Their goal was "to more
quickly identify and filter out phone numbers that were unrelated to
their investigations," Boyd said.
Targets of the police interest include alleged marijuana smugglers,
car thieves, armed thugs and others.
The data services also are enormously popular among collection
agencies, bails bondsmen, private detectives and suspicious
spouses. Customers included:
_A U.S. Labor Department employee who used her government e-mail
address and phone number to buy two months of personal cellular phone
records of a woman in New Jersey.
_A buyer who received credit card information about the father of
murder victim Jon Benet Ramsey.
_A buyer who obtained 20 printed pages of phone calls by pro
basketball player Damon Jones of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I'm very disappointed," Jones told AP on Tuesday. "I paid for a
service and that service is being violated. I've been an upstanding
guy, never been in any trouble or anything like that. I was shocked,
and I really want to get to the bottom of this."
Privacy advocates bristled over data brokers gathering records for
police without subpoenas.
"This is pernicious, an end run around the Fourth Amendment," said
Marc Rotenberg, head of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy
Information Center which advocates tougher federal regulation of data
brokers. "The government is encouraging unlawful conduct; it's not
smart on the law enforcement side to be making use of information
Legal experts said law enforcement agencies would be permitted to use
illegally obtained information from private parties without violating
the Fourth Amendment as long it could not be shown that police
encouraged or committed crimes in the process.
"If law enforcement is encouraging people in the private sector to
commit a crime in getting these records, that would be problematic,"
said Mark Levin, a former top Justice Department official under
President Reagan. "If, on the other hand, they are asking data brokers
if they have any public information on any given phone numbers, that
should be fine."
Levin said he nonetheless would have advised federal agents to use the
practice only when it was a matter of urgency or national security and
otherwise to stick to a legally bulletproof method like subpoenas for
Congress subpoenaed thousands of documents from data brokers
describing how they collected telephone records by impersonating
"I was shot down four times," data broker employee Michele Yontef
complained in an e-mail in July 2005 to a colleague. Yontef was among
those ordered to appear at this week's hearing.
Another company years ago even acknowledged breaking the law.
"We must break various rules of law in acquiring all the information
we achieve for you," Touch Tone Information Inc. of Denver wrote to a
law firm in 1998 that was seeking records of calls made on a calling
card. Police officers questioned also agreed that privacy of private
citizens and Fourth Amendment 'concerns' had to sometimes be sacrificed
in their work.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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