Category Archives: STATISTICS

US wiretap numbers still don’t add up, and nobody knows why

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint reported almost three-times the number of wiretaps that were listed in the government’s official report.

Red vintage telephone, metaphor/symbol for a wide variety of concepts. Copy space.

There’s a huge difference between the number of wiretaps reported by the US courts and the number of wiretaps responded to by US phone companies.

Last month, the US Courts’ Administrative Office said the number of wiretaps authorized in 2015, which allow the authorities real-time access to communications, stood at 4,148 wiretaps, up by 17 percent from a year ago. Not a single wiretap request was rejected during the year.

But that figure doesn’t make sense when you look at how many government data demands were processed by the big telcos.

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint responded to 11,633 wiretaps during the year — almost a threefold increase over the government’s annual wiretap report. (T-Mobile alone said in its latest transparency report that it received hundreds more wiretaps than the government’s official tally.)

And that’s just the cell networks — the difference is likely far larger when you account for landlines and internet companies.

So how many wiretaps were authorized last year? Nobody can explain the discrepancy.

upload-wiretaps-chart-graph image

This isn’t even the first time the numbers come under scrutiny.

Albert Gidari, a former leading privacy lawyer who now serves as director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, was first to notice a difference in the numbers. In the previous 2014 wiretap report, he noticed a twofold inconsistency between what the courts reported and what the cell giants reported.

In a blog post a year ago, he analyzed the numbers. Even taking into account the complexities of run-on and extended wiretaps, Gidari said the numbers still don’t add up.

He told me on Tuesday — a little over a year later — he still can’t figure it out.

“No one seems to have an adequate explanation,” he said.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office explained, “numerous wiretap authorizations are not reported… in the year they expire because investigations are ongoing.” The spokesperson also said it’s possible that “one wiretap order can include multiple devices, therefore, the total number of devices tapped is likely to be greater than the number of orders issued.” Also, if wiretap applications are granted but require an extension, the courts will not report the orders until after they expire.

That might apply to a few stray wiretap requests, but Gidari said that it wouldn’t come close to explaining the threefold margin of error.

“It is inexplicable even considering that carriers may each have received an order that covered four different devices on four different carrier networks,” he said. “But for that to explain it, every order would have to have at least three devices covered on three carrier networks to explain the numbers.”

“Transparency is supposed to be about making it clearer, not more obscure or obtuse,” he said.


Henry Sapiecha

Census: The ABS has been quietly holding on to our names for years

The Bureau of Statistics has been quietly hanging on to the names it collects with the census to conduct studies, despite a public commitment to destroy them.

Census changes

Find out why no one will be knocking at your door with census forms this year.

Australian statistician David Kalisch told Fairfax Media the Bureau had been keeping the names it collected for up to 18 months.

“They’ve done it under the guise of: ‘this is while we are processing the data’,” he said.

Australian statistician David Kalisch image

David Kalisch says: ‘We are now being more transparent about it’. Photo: Rohan Thomson

“They’ve done linkages, they’ve done other things. What’s happening now is we are being more transparent about it.”

The studies have been conducted despite a commitment on the ABS website that “name and address information will be destroyed once statistical processing has been completed“.

They used the names and addresses on census forms to link the census answers to department of immigration records, to school enrolment records and to the Australian Early Development Index.

The names were destroyed only after the records were linked.

Separately, and without asking for consent, the Bureau has been tracking five per cent of the population (more than one million people) through what it calls the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset.

It has been using the names on the forms to create “linkage keys”, which enable it to follow respondents over time. Each census, the same name produces the same linkage key, enabling movements to be tracked. Once each key has been created, the name itself has been destroyed. It is impossible to reverse-engineer a key to derive the name.

“In 2016, I have decided to keep names and addresses for longer,” Mr Kalisch writes in today’s Sydney Morning Herald and Age. “This will enable the ABS to produce statistics on important economic and social areas such as educational outcomes, and measuring outcomes for migrants.”

Labelled by former Australian Statistician Bill McLennan “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS,” the decision will formalise what was happening informally before Mr Kalisch joined the ABS in 2014. It will extend the period for research using names from 18 months to four years. All names collected will be deleted by August 2020 or when studies have been completed, whichever is the soonest.

What’s happening now is we are being more transparent about it.

Australian Statistician David Kalisch

The decision is a retreat on a announcement in December that names and addresses on census forms would be retained indefinitely.

“There are extremely robust safeguards in place to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the information collected in the census, including names and addresses,” Mr Kalisch writes in today’s Fairfax Media publications. “The ABS never has and never will release identifiable census data.”

Kat Lane, vice-chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, said the real issue wasn’t the ABS security system. It was that there was no justification for tracking or personally identifying Australians.


Henry Sapiecha