How much are your private conversations worth to the government? Turns out, it can be a lot, depending on the technology.
In the era of intense government surveillance and secret court orders, a murky multimillion-dollar market has emerged. Paid for by U.S. tax dollars, but with little public scrutiny, surveillance fees charged in secret by technology and phone companies can vary wildly.
AT&T, for example, imposes a $325 “activation fee” for each wiretap and $10 a day to maintain it. Smaller carriers Cricket and U.S. Cellular charge only about $250 per wiretap. But snoop on a Verizon customer? That costs the government $775 for the first month and $500 each month after that, according to industry disclosures made last year to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
Meanwhile, email records like those amassed by the National
Security Agency through a program revealed by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden probably were collected for free or very cheaply. Facebook says it doesn’t charge the government for access. And while Microsoft, Yahoo and Google won’t say how much they charge, the American Civil Liberties Union found that email records can be turned over for as little as $25.
Industry says it doesn’t profit from the hundreds of thousands of government eavesdropping requests it receives each year, and civil liberties groups want businesses to charge.
“What we don’t want is surveillance to become a profit center,” said Christopher Soghoian, the ACLU’s principal technologist. But “it’s always better to charge $1. It creates friction, and it creates transparency” because it generates a paper trail that can be tracked.
Most companies agree not to charge in emergency cases like tracking a missing person. They also aren’t allowed to charge for phone logs that reveal who called a line and how long they talked — such as the documents the Justice Department obtained about phones at The Associated Press during a leaks investigation — because that information is easily generated from automated billing systems.
Still, the fees can add up quickly. The average wiretap is estimated to cost $50,000, a figure that includes reimbursements as well as other operational costs. One narcotics case in New York in 2011 cost the government $2.9 million alone.