With the National Security Agency (NSA) gathering metadata from all telecommunications companies and email from internet companies on all Americans, the companies providing the data charge for gathering and providing this data to law enforcement. The questions are how much do they charge and who is paying for this? According to the Blaze, the American taxpayer is footing the bill. Yes, you are paying the government to spy on you.

The Blaze reports:

  • The government can't say exactly how much it reimburses telecoms for surveillance activity, but AT&T estimated it received $24 million in reimbursements between 2007 and 2011, while Verizon's estimate was between $3 million and $5 million.
  • The amount charged varies by company and by surveillance service being requested — wiretapping costs more than accessing email records, for example.
  • Some argue there is a balance to be struck between the companies charging the government for this information, which takes time and resources to collect, and ensuring it doesn't become a profit driver for them.
  • Ultimately, it is tax payer dollars that the government is using to pay the fees for this surveillance info.

Companies such as AT&T, Verizon and US Cellular are making extra millions off the government's need to violate American citizen's privacy. According to industry disclosures made last year to Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., AT&T imposes a $325 activation fee along with $10 per month to maintain it; Verizon charges the government $775 for the first month and $500 for each month thereafter; smaller carriers such as US Cellular and Cricket charge the government about $250 per wiretap.

Former NSA analyst turned whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the program the NSA uses to amass email data from providers such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, etc. While most of these companies will not disclose how much was charged to the government, the information was collected very cheaply or for free. As an example, Facebook released the information to the government free. The American Civil Liberties Union discovered that email records can be turned over for as little as $25.

It seems the telecommunications companies have found a nice little murky million dollar market that has little public scrutiny.

The Associated Press reports on the cost of the surveillance in the following video:

The Blaze continues:

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 uncalled-for 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.

Under the US Communications Assistance for Law Reinforcement Act, the US government has long enjoyed access to phone networks and high speed internet traffic in order 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." As has been recently disclosed, the "US intelligence community has an intense interest in analyzing data and content that flows through American technology companies to gather foreign intelligence."

In an email statement, the FBI requests an explanation when charges are questionable and tries to work with the communications carrier to understand cost structure but could not disclose how much it spends in industry reimbursements as those payments are done through a variety of programs, field offices and case funds. In 1994, Congress allotted $500 million dollars to reimburse phone companies to retrofit their equipment to accommodate wiretaps on new digital networks. Since then, technology companies have been a focus of law enforcement and the intelligence community.

The Blaze adds:

To discourage gratuitous requests and to prevent losing money, industry turned to a section of federal law that allows companies to be reimbursed for the cost of "searching for, assembling, reproducing and otherwise providing" communications content or records on behalf of the government. The costs must be "reasonably necessary" and "mutually agreed" upon with the government.

From there, phone companies developed detailed fee schedules and began billing law enforcement much as they do customers. In its letter to Markey, AT&T estimated that it collected $24 million in government reimbursements between 2007 and 2011. Verizon, which had the highest fees but says it doesn't charge in every case, reported a similar amount, collecting between $3 million and $5 million a year during the same period.

The cost of accommodating the government's surveillance request increased as the requests for data grew and the carrier upgraded their technology. AT&T currently devotes about 100 employees to the task while Verizon keeps a staff of 70 employees working around the clock to process the quarter million requests per year.

ACLU's Soghoian discovered in 2009 that Sprint created a website allowing "law enforcement to track the location data of its wireless customers for only $30 per month to accommodate the approximately 8 million requests it received in one year. The average wiretap costs on the average about $50,000 which is the reimbursements and operational costs. One New York narcotics case cost $2.9 million, paid for by the government.

Al Gidari, a partner at the law firm of Perkins Cole who represents technology and communications companies on privacy and security issues, stated if the FBI or NSA needs data, they would pay whatever it takes to get it but that it's likely the carriers undercharge because they don't want to risk being accused of "making false claim against the government which carries stiff penalties." According to Gidari, this does not make the system a true market-based solution.

Gidari states, "Government doesn't have the manpower to wade through irrelevant material any more than providers have the bandwidth to bury them in records. In reality, there is a pretty good equilibrium and balance, with the exception of phone records."

Yeah, sure there is. The government agencies request all the data then store it for use at a later time. If they didn't, there would be no need for the huge NSA data storage facility being built in Utah.

The Blaze article concludes:

In 2009, then-New York criminal prosecutor John Prather sued several major telecommunications carriers in federal court in Northern California in 2009, including AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, for overcharging federal and state police agencies. In his complaint, Prather said phone companies have the technical ability to turn on a switch, duplicate call information and pass it along to law enforcement with little effort. Instead, Prather says his staff, while he was working as a city prosecutor, would receive convoluted bills with extraneous fees. The case is pending.

"They were monstrously more than what the telecoms could ever hope to charge for similar services in an open, competitive market, and the costs charged to the governments by telecoms did not represent reasonable prices as defined in the code of federal regulations," the lawsuit said.

The phone companies have asked the judge to dismiss the case. Prather's lawsuit claims whistle-blower status. If he wins, he stands to collect a percentage – estimated anywhere from 12 percent to 25 percent – of the money recovered from the companies.

So, while the government issues secret, broad, unspecific warrants to obtain the communications records of millions of Americans, the government contends they are overpaying while the carriers want the lawsuit dropped. The real truth is while they are debating the cost of providing the information, the taxpayer is being fleeced and the spying still continues. None of the surveillance prevented the Fort Hood incident, the Boston Bombing or a large number of attacks that would justify this misuse of the law. Unfortunately, this administration is so transparent the real reason for this operation is hard to see.

The carriers did not charge for any cases involving tracking an abducted child or for phone logs revealing who called the line and the length of the conversation – such as what was obtained during the Associated Press leaks investigation. That makes me feel so much better. So, now I question the real motive for the Obamaphone subsidy. Surely, it wasn't to make sure every American had a phone in order to be tracked and spied upon. This administration's evil knows no depth and pushes this country closer to the edge of that bottomless pit daily.

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