How Far Does The National Snooping Dollar Stretch?
from the of-course,-there's-no-accounting-for-classified-funds dept
The surveillance dragnet in the US is undeniably large. As such, lots of money (your money) goes into financing the collection of “relevant” data (your data). We’ve already seen the generous $100 million surveillance “grant” handed out to telcos in exchange for their “voluntary” cooperation.
The AP has tracked down some of the fees charged by various services for providing the government with data and access. At this point, most of what’s being requested probably falls under the heading of “unprecedented,” hence the lack of any uniformity in the pricing structure. But even older methods of snooping are subject to some price fluctuations.
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.
These fees are rather low when it comes to government expenditures, but this solely covers the less popular method of obtaining information — old school, targeted wiretaps. Email records are also obtained very cheaply ($25 or less). Part of this surprisingly low cost is automation. In many cases, what the government is requesting is already automatically generated. Another factor is mitigation of the costs of compliance to the company itself.
Online companies in particular tend to undercharge because they don’t have established accounting systems, and hiring staff to track costs is more expensive than not charging the government at all, he said.
Possibly the greatest factor in keeping the prices low is the oft-maligned court of public opinion. Most of the involved companies would rather not appear to be profiting from selling customer data to the government. That’s probably a smart idea, but civil liberties defenders agree that these companies should be charging something, rather than handing out info for free.
“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.
The individual prices may seem nickel-and-dime, but the government generates enough business for this to turn into real money. AT&T claims to have 100 staffers working around the clock to satisfy government data requests. Verizon claims to have 70. $100 million has already been sent their way, and both companies are extremely unlikely to simply eat these expenses.
Even regular wiretaps can generate significant costs.
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.
The costs associated with the FBI’s and NSA’s large scale surveillance efforts is likely to remain hidden. The FBI claims it’s not possible to estimate its outlays as the payments run through a “variety of programs, field offices and case funds.”
Anything about the size of NSA’s payments to cooperating companies is genuinely impossible to nail down. (At least without a leak…) Its annual budget is classified. All that’s known for certain is 15 intelligence agencies share a $75 billion annual budget and estimates place the NSA’s share at $10-15 billion.
There’s little chance the details of this budget will ever be publicized, which means the public is again asked to trust the “oversight” of those who have access. It’s safe to say a large shadow industry has developed over the past 15 years, one that goes beyond simple transactions between intelligence agencies and involved services.
There’s also a large number of private security firms being employed by these agencies, many of which have ensured future profitability by setting up shop as close to the Beltway as possible. That’s the larger concern: a set of corporations almost totally funded with public money assisting in the capture, analysis and storage of the public’s data.