For years, the government and phone carriers have been squabbling over secret surveillance—because of the dollar amount on the bill. Most recently, AT&T's thrifty little offshoot Cricket Communications has agreed to pay out $2.1 million in a settlement for overcharging federal and state law enforcement agencies for wiretaps and pen registers, and Sprint is also being sued by the government for overcharging for wiretaps.
Which means you and the FBI agree on at least one thing: Carriers are screwing us with hidden fees. It also raises a question: How much does a wiretap actually cost?
Last year, the average wiretap cost $41,119, according to the U.S. Courts Wiretaps Report for 2013, down from $57,540 the previous year. The steady decrease in wiretapping price means it's highly likely that wiretapping is cheaper now than it has ever been before. The average length of these wiretaps was 40 days, and the most prominent wiretapping happened in northern Illinois, where narcotics officers incepted 136,378 text messages.
Carriers are required by the Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to comply with government wiretapping, but they are allowed to recoup "reasonable" expenses. In both the aforementioned cases, the government accused carriers of drumming up unreasonable expenses (can you throttle a Stingray)? While Cricket settled, the Sprint suit is still ongoing, with Sprint denying the allegations that it overcharged for its surveillance services by more than 50%.
These aren't the only accusations that carriers are price-gouging the government. In 2012, former New York prosecutor John Prather sued AT&T, Verizon, Qwest, and Sprint on behalf of law enforcement, accusing the companies of charging up to 10 times more than they should have for wiretapping and surveillance services. That suit was dismissed, but the anger about perceived overcharging is obviously still very present.
Documents leaked earlier this year showing what carriers charged per wiretap in 2009, and reports from telecom companies requested by Sen. Ed Markey showed more recent figures. Cricket charged around $250 per wiretap, while Verizon charged $775 the first month and $500 each month after that per tap (Verizon declined to share information for this article). It's strange that this first settlement is coming from one of the smaller companies, and one with relatively low charges. The contested time that Cricket inflated its bills was between 2007 and 2010.
The carrier fees listed are way, way below the 40k pricetag, and the wiretap reports don't give an exact breakdown of why the average cost is so high. The reason for the discrepancy is probably because the listed cost includes the amount of money it takes law enforcement to carry out the taps, including labor.
This spat over fees is not new. A decade ago the government set aside $500 million to help telecom companies retrofit their technology for digital surveillance—but that was a decade ago. Then in 2008, reports indicated the FBI had neglected to pay telecom companies for their wiretapping services over a bill dispute.
I've asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven J. Saltiel, who handled the Cricket agreement and the Sprint suit, for more detail on exactly how carriers were overbilling, and whether they still are. I haven't heard back, but the tension between carriers asked to carry out more frequent surveillance operations and the agencies who disagree with how much their spying plans are costing them is unlikely to die down.
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