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.

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Comments on “How Far Does The National Snooping Dollar Stretch?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Seems our priorities are being set by people without a clue, possibly deranged. Austerity here – splurging there, all the while chanting about small government, minimal regulations, and no entitlements. But that is only applicable to most of the world, not themselves.

What ever happened to “For The children”? It’s all BS huh. Apparently that is only used when it aligns with the narrative, because it seems that we can not afford to feed, cloth or educate children once they are born.

This mindset (assuming they have a mind) is going to bite them in the ass, eventually. I’m amazed they do not see it coming.
1) pay lowest wage possible
2) employees supplement low wage with food stamps
3) remove employee health care
4) no sick days (works well in restaurants – yuk)
5) new hires to replace the fired sick employees
6) remove food stamp program
7) quantity of healthy min workers diminishes
8) have to pay higher wages or go out of business
9) blame the liberals for your self inflicted wounds
-) do not profit

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Must be easy to hand wave away any argument counter to your own by just assuming bad faith any time anyone one disagrees. I mean they must by a hypocrite right? So you never have to engage any argument on actual merit. Take the removal of the food stamp program (because you called it out specifically). Anyone genuinely arguing for small government would be quick to point out that the latest bill to pass the house, the one that removes food stamps, was actually the most expensive bill on the table. So yes, there are absolutely people out there that are hypocrites. That would decry programs like food stamps while simultaneously expanding welfare for farmers, but it’s overly simplistic and intellectually lazy to dismiss everyone that calls for smaller government as if they’d all have made the same call.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I was vigorously waving hands at counter arguments there … glad you saw them. The bad faith assumptions were flying all about and someone needs to shoo them away. Damn hypocrites are everywhere, to many to argue with – they lack merit anyways.

Food stamps clearly are a burden upon the wealthy job creators and these moochers need to suck it up and get a job fer chyse sake – sheesh! We need government small enough to fit in womens vaginas and yet it keeps getting bigger cause we need to snoop everyones bunghole and invade all other countries. This is all so overly simplistic and intellectually lazy – not sure I can understand it all. Please talk down at me again because I’m sure it makes you feel so much better about yourself.

out_of_the_blue says:

"Microsoft, Yahoo and Google won't say how much they charge"

And of course the minion here doesn’t even mention these major sources at all, especially not Google.

But Google is the SPY AGENCY that profits the most: its tracking and collating is used to charge higher rates to target advertising at us.

Pragmatic says:

Re: "Microsoft, Yahoo and Google won't say how much they charge"


Google ANNOUNCE what they’re being asked to do as and when possible. PLUS, as has been stated over and over again ad nauseam, NOBODY IS OBLIGED TO USE GOOGLE SERVICES, OKAY?

That’s why you have no followers here and nobody takes you seriously. The fact that you keep repeating the “Google minions” trope despite all the debunkage serves only to prove that you’re an idiot.

And we all know you only post here because your train wreck of a blog gets no attention.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Microsoft, Yahoo and Google won't say how much they charge"

Google has been mentioned as have the other sources (all of which appear to be higher on the list of ‘major sources’ given the facts in hand) such as AT&T, Verizon, and Microsoft. So far the telecoms are the only ones we have solid evidence were talking money for handing over information and money is what this article is about so naturally Google (along with the dozens of other tech companies we don’t have any evidence to suggest might have been taking payoffs) doesn’t appear. Keep jumping at those elves though, I’m sure it’s all really the vast conspiracy you desperately need it to be to maintain your own world view.

Anonymous Coward says:

i wonder what other, much more worthwhile projects the tax payers money could be spent on? i wonder what else the Telcos could do with the staff used to carry out the law enforcement agencies whims? then consider how much money the Telcos charge for all the services and the snooping done ob their own as far as tracking people is concerned.
a UK mobile phone company has just announced price changes for PAYG customers. if my memory serves correctly (dont chastise if wrong), prices were going to be dropped to 3p per text, 2p/minute for calls and 1p/meg of data. strange how 1 company can do this, but not all.

Guardian says:


its a provin fact there are over 1 million employed via this drag net
6 figures alone avg wages so lets jsut pretend its about 100K a year

UM thats 150 billion TEN TIMES the articles max budget for the nsa
this doesnt inlcude hard ware, the costs of the spying form the isps…etc…

the one NSA AGENT used the word “customer”
so someone is paying 135 billion a year or more for this data?

heatign cost of buildings and other hardware like the storage onto hard drives IS ALSO A HUGE COST….

again this cant be true article estimates are on a lowside of 175 billion to as high as 250 billion for hte nsa alone.

this does not include the cia, the fbi, or the DHS

Guardian says:

data encryption onto harddrive costs

ok 1 hr audio uncompressed takes up about 600 megabytes

2.6 billion people on the net if the nsa reach is even half that

1.3 billion people and lets jsut pretend that 10% are using encryption methods
130 million people ( we know 500 million calls a year alone from germany and that they also do russia )

so lets say each of the above 130 million make about 100 hrs of calls a month
600 megabyte times 100 or 60 GB per caller
20 callers per terabyte
2 tb drive = say 100$
so 40 callers per 100$
130 MILLION / 40
3,250,000 hard drives times 100$
32.5 billion a year on a guestimate for hard drives alone to store as they say anyone using encryption.

50% of all pirates use a form of encryption so you prolly can increase that 130 million as most nations say about 20-30% of there nation does stuff

2.6 billion times 30%
720-750 million half that is around 300+ million
so think this is prolly a low ball….and remember they spent almost 2 billion on a facility to house this stuff…
for all that storage…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: data encryption onto harddrive costs

1 hr audio uncompressed takes up about 600 megabytes

Not necessarily. It entirely depends on the sampling rate and bit width being used. For example, ordinary phone service is digitized at 8K. One hour of uncompressed POTS audio would be a bit less than 28 megs. Also, who in the world would store this uncompressed?

I think your estimates of required storage are highly inflated.

Michael (profile) says:

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.”

Am I allowed to use that excuse when the IRS wants to know how much money I need to pay taxes on?

I’m sorry. I cannot tell you how much money I made last year because I was paid through a variety of programs, offices, and funds. I’ll just pay taxes on the income from my primary employer.

Guardian says:

meh secret court of love( part 4)

Agent 001: “hey agent 002 , people gonna know this is costing a lot how ya think we can lesson it?”
Agent 002: “Hey ain’t hollystupid trying ot mess with pirates, lets SELL them data on everyone…teehee”
Agent 001: “Hey i know some CEO’s would love this , lets make them pay too”

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Would be funny to watch the reaction if nothing else…

‘Well, it looks like we’ll be trimming the budget you get this year, we only allocate funding for known expenses, and as you are unable to provide evidence as to where exactly the money provided to you is going, we can only assume it’s being wasted, and will therefor be decreasing the amount allocated to you.’

tqk (profile) says:

How to blow through billions stupidly.

This whole thing reads like they’re implementing all of this in the dumbest way possible. What, do they have 170 clerks using Outlook to forward emails to the TLAs? How can you spend millions of dollars on one phone tap?

I may be minimizing the magnitude of the job, but I’m sure pretty much any Unix/Linux Procmail user could replace those 170 clerks with a short recipe that searched a data file for the addressees in each incoming email, then forwards each hit off to the TLAs automatically, 24*7*365.25.

As for wiretaps, once you hook a sound activated recorder onto the line, you then need one person to sit and listen to and classify the contents of each call, and then what? Okay, watch the number the call comes from and based on calling number, some will be interesting and others can be automatically discounted. That costs millions of dollars, how?

I know the military is known for hundred dollar hammers and thousand dollar toilets. What’s AT&T’s and Verizon’s excuse? This sounds incredibly ad hoc, wing it, didn’t put *any* thought into it before just doing whatever some wingnut non-technical manager said to do.

I must be missing something important … Or these people are getting away with highway robbery and shipping boatloads of cash off to the Caymans.

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