There has been interest on Capitol Hill and in the press lately about law enforcement requests for information from telephone companies. A couple of stories have mentioned Neustar without making clear what we do.
We are proud of what we do both to assist law enforcement and to help our customers protect the privacy rights of consumers. So we thought this was a good opportunity to talk about what we do and how we do it.
For many decades law enforcement agencies have obtained subpoenas, court orders, or warrants to allow them to get information from phone companies to assist in criminal investigations. Sometimes they would get a subpoena to obtain dialing information, and sometimes they would get a warrant to tap a telephone. More recently, with the advent of mobile phones, law enforcement agencies can obtain a court order requiring phone companies to provide generalized location information too (usually by obtaining information about which cell site a phone has accessed). The type of court order required varies by jurisdiction under current law, and is the subject of much debate.
Telephone companies, of course, are required to comply with these court orders. This is not optional and you would not want it otherwise.
So where does Neustar come in, since we are not a telephone company? As explained in detail below, we assist telephone companies in meeting their legal obligations to provide information to law enforcement agencies – a service we call “legal compliance.”
But first, let me explain what we don’t do, as we are far better known for other services, particularly our role supporting telephone number portability in North America.
Understandably, perhaps, some have wondered whether our involvement with the telephone numbering system plays a role in our legal compliance service. The answer is simply that it does not.
Our role in the telephone numbering system is to permit consumers to retain their telephone numbers when they change service providers. When an individual or a business transfers a telephone number from one phone company to another, that telephone number and the new phone company is stored in our system. It’s our job quickly to inform the rest of the communications industry of the change, so that calls and messages can be completed with no interruption in service.
We do not receive, nor do we distribute, any information about the subscribers themselves, their locations, or the content of their calls. Only authorized parties – generally phone companies – receive access to the telephone number and carrier information we do have. Law enforcement may have access solely for the purpose of learning what phone company services a particular number so it will know where to direct court orders. Both Neustar’s own procedures and external audits ensure that we are following the rules – which we do scrupulously.
By contrast, the assistance we provide to telephone companies in responding to legal process is a stand-alone service that we began offering when, in 2005, we acquired another company that provided the service.
Most of us are generally aware of the existence of only a handful of telephone companies, wireless or wire line. In fact there are literally thousands of telephone companies in the United States. You have never heard of the vast majority of them, and many are very small. Yet all of these telephone companies, even the tiniest, are obligated by law to assist law enforcement agencies when they receive a legal order to do so.
Putting in place the technical resources to comply with court orders, and having the legal resources to evaluate the court orders, is complicated and expensive. It is particularly difficult for the small carriers and new competitors that receive a very small number of requests from law enforcement to make the technical and legal investments needed to handle these requests in accordance with the law.
This is where Neustar helps. Roughly 400 of the thousands of telephone companies in the United States — mostly the smaller ones — have hired Neustar to respond to the court orders they receive. We simply act as their agent doing, on their behalf, what they are required to do by law.
Why do they hire us instead of doing it themselves? Simply because by serving as the agent for multiple carriers we can more easily provide the legal and technical resources necessary to comply with the law and to protect the rights of consumers.
And how do we respond? We carefully review all documentation provided by law enforcement to make sure it is in order, and that it supports providing the information requested. We will deny requests for information when the proper documentation is not provided. For example, we have not provided information where: The language of the legal process is too broad or confusing to allow for proper identification of the records being requested; the legal process was not properly executed; the type of legal process served was not sufficient to obtain the records requested (for example, information that requires a warrant issued by a court after a showing of probable cause will not be provided if we are presented with a subpoena); or the identifying information in the legal process is incorrect or inconsistent with the carrier’s records.
Simply put, when the legal process is sufficient and the telephone company is required to provide information then (and only then) we help them do it. Simply put, we provide law enforcement agencies with the information they are legally entitled to receive to fight crime and protect lives, while acting as a safeguard for consumers by ensuring that the only information provided is that required by law.
The bottom line is that we are careful stewards of the data we administer, are always mindful of privacy concerns, think about ethical issues in all that we do, and adhere strictly to our legal obligations. We are proud of our ability to help the nation’s small and competitive telephone companies ensure that their consumers’ rights are protected when they fulfill their obligations to assist law enforcement.
For additional information, please see our FAQ.