Telcos like Verizon can make millions from surveillance fees. Photo: AFP
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 US 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 $US325 ($353) "activation fee" for each wiretap and $US10 a day to maintain it. Smaller carriers Cricket and US Cellular charge only about $US250 per wiretap. But snoop on a Verizon customer? That costs the government $US775 for the first month and $US500 each month after that, according to industry disclosures made last year to Rep. Edward Markey.
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 $US25.
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. They worry that government surveillance will become too cheap as companies automate their responses. And if companies gave away customer records for free, wouldn't that encourage gratuitous surveillance?
But privacy advocates also want companies to be upfront about what they charge and alert customers after an investigation has concluded that their communications were monitored.
"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.
Regardless of price, the surveillance business is growing. The US government long has enjoyed access to phone networks and high-speed Internet traffic under the US Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act to catch suspected criminals and terrorists. More recently, the FBI has pushed technology companies like Google and Skype to guarantee access to real-time communications on their services.
And, as shown by recent disclosures about the NSA's surveillance practices, the US intelligence community has an intense interest in analysing data and content that flow through American technology companies to gather foreign intelligence.
The FBI said it could not say how much it spends on industry reimbursements because payments are made through a variety of programs, field offices and case funds. In an emailed statement, the agency said when charges are questionable, it requests an explanation and tries to work with the carrier to understand its cost structure.
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