When illegal spying on Americans by our own government was at its height, during the Bush/GOP Regime, I often wondered why the telecoms and major ISPs were so anxious to join in. I concluded that they must be getting big bucks, but I never realized quite how had it is. You are paying so much to have our government to your telephone calls, read your email, and track your web surfing that they dont want you to know how much it is.
That’s the question muckraker and Indiana University graduate student Christopher Soghoian asked all agencies within the Department of Justice, under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed a few months ago. But before the agencies could provide the data, Verizon and Yahoo intervened and filed an objection on grounds that, among other things, they would be ridiculed and publicly shamed were their surveillance price sheets made public.
Yahoo writes in its 12-page objection letter (.pdf), that if its pricing information were disclosed to Soghoian, he would use it “to ’shame’ Yahoo! and other companies — and to ’shock’ their customers.”
“Therefore, release of Yahoo!’s information is reasonably likely to lead to impairment of its reputation for protection of user privacy and security, which is a competitive disadvantage for technology companies,” the company writes.
Verizon took a different stance. It objected to the release (.pdf) of its Law Enforcement Legal Compliance Guide because it might “confuse” customers and lead them to think that records and surveillance capabilities available only to law enforcement would be available to them as well — resulting in a flood of customer calls to the company asking for trap and trace orders.
“Customers may see a listing of records, information or assistance that is available only to law enforcement,” Verizon writes in its letter, “but call in to Verizon and seek those same services. Such calls would stretch limited resources, especially those that are reserved only for law enforcement emergencies.”
Other customers, upon seeing the types of surveillance law enforcement can do, might “become unnecessarily afraid that their lines have been tapped or call Verizon to ask if their lines are tapped (a question we cannot answer).”
Verizon does disclose a little tidbit in its letter, saying that the company receives “tens of thousands” of requests annually for customer records and information from law enforcement agencies.
Soghoian filed his records request to discover how much law enforcement agencies — and thus U.S. taxpayers — are paying for spy documents and surveillance services with the aim of trying to deduce from this how often such requests are being made. Soghoian explained his theory on his blog, Slight Paranoia:
In the summer of 2009, I decided to try and follow the money trail in order to determine how often Internet firms were disclosing their customers’ private information to the government. I theorized that if I could obtain the price lists of each ISP, detailing the price for each kind of service, and invoices paid by the various parts of the Federal government, then I might be able to reverse engineer some approximate statistics. In order to obtain these documents, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with every part of the Department of Justice that I could think of.
The first DoJ agency to respond to his request was the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), which indicated that it had price lists available for Cox Communications, Comcast, Yahoo and Verizon. But because the companies voluntarily provided the price lists to the government, the FOIA allows the companies an opportunity to object to the disclosure of their data under various exemptions. Comcast and Cox were fine with the disclosure, Soghoian reported.
He found that Cox Communications charges $2,500 to fulfill a pen register/trap-and-trace order for 60 days, and $2,000 for each additional 60-day-interval. It charges $3,500 for the first 30 days of a wiretap, and $2,500 for each additional 30 days. Thirty days worth of a customer’s call detail records costs $40.
Comcast’s pricing list, which was already leaked to the internet in 2007, indicated that it charges at least $1,000 for the first month of a wiretap, and $750 per month thereafter… [emphasis added]
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If you actually believe that the only government spying on US Citizens is through legal subpoenas, I have a wonderful bridge for sale in a major east coast city. I believe it continues, because President Obama had not delivered on either the transparency on this issue or the repeal of related parts of the Patriot Act he promised during his campaign. I suspect that the price we pay for illegal spying on us is much higher than for the legal wiretaps.