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Wirele$$tap
April 3, 2012 5:14 PM   Subscribe

These Are The Prices AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Charge For Cellphone Wiretaps. After a flurry of public records requests to over 200 police departments, the ACLU has obtained a trove of documents detailing police tracking of cell phone location, call logs and more, including a price list for subscriber information from every major US carrier.

T-Mobile declined to comment, and an AT&T spokesperson referred me to the company’s privacy policy, pointing out a specific line that reads, “We do not sell your personal information to anyone for any purpose. Period.”

That claim is “simply misleading,” says Catherine Crump, an attorney with the ACLU who coordinated the group’s FOIA project. “That’s a curious definition of ‘sell,’ given that they seem to be charging money for people’s information on a regular basis and handing it over to law enforcement agencies around the country.”
posted by indubitable (35 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Finally, the Government has figured out its relationship with Big Business: Customer.
posted by absalom at 5:18 PM on April 3, 2012 [18 favorites]


I'm actually surprised by this; I figured the U.S. carriers got away with so much because they gave the DOJ goods for free (or cheap).
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:19 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Previously
posted by indubitable at 5:21 PM on April 3, 2012


I'm surprised by this, too. I would have thought part of the spectrum license would be for the government to be allowed to track the data after getting an appropriate search warrant. But I suppose the telcos would just say, "Look, we already paid for the license, why do we have to pay for this, too?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:23 PM on April 3, 2012


I would have thought part of the spectrum license would be for the government to be allowed to track the data after getting an appropriate search warrant.

Unfortunately, the leading article points out that these services are often offered without the requirement of a warrant.
posted by indubitable at 5:26 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


They aren't selling your personal information, silly they are selling access to it! See? No policies violated!
posted by roboton666 at 5:31 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Internet sites have price sheets like this too. Here's info on what Yahoo charged law enforcement in 2009 ($40 / user). In general the costs are set to cover the cost of compliance, it's not exactly a profit center.
posted by Nelson at 5:34 PM on April 3, 2012


Your tax dollars at work!
posted by rhizome at 5:36 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


For true value-extracting price discrimination they should charge up the wazoo for non-white names!

Muhommad? ooooh that's a 3000% surcharge NYPD! For you Arizona Border Patrol Miguels carry a hefty 700% up charge!
posted by stratastar at 5:42 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


They aren't selling your personal information, silly they are selling access to it! See? No policies violated!


These companies make, in aggregate, several hundred billion dollars in revenue a year, this isn't a profit center as was noted above. I would guess that the figures are set at a level that discourages casual use of the service by law enforcement agencies.

In big business and government, nothing gets paid for over 25 bucks without a couple of signatures and justifications.

(I don't agree with the policies but outrage about being sold out to the man to turn a dime is kind of silly).
posted by iamabot at 5:44 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


So does anyone know how this works for non-digital evidence? If the government subpoenas a set of paper records, do they give the record holder money in exchange? What if they're just asking someone to share their paper records voluntarily, and there's no subpoena involved — does money change hands then?
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:45 PM on April 3, 2012


nebulawindphone: " If the government subpoenas a set of paper records, do they give the record holder money in exchange?"

Yes, there are often copying fees and delivery fees for paper records.
posted by wierdo at 6:19 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Surveillance in the Prison-State is expensive.

Hussein Jones can barely pay his monthly cell phone bill of $75, yet the Federal Gov't is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor his calls and listen to his voicemail. Something is wrong with this picture.

The FBI ought to give free cell phones with unlimited data and voice services to terrorists. Seriously.

It would probably be cheaper and more effective than paying Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and Richard Branson to do it for you.

(And while they're at it, they could initiate the USPS IT and Wireless Phone Services, thereby saving the US Post Office as an aency, allowing them to draw a profit on services they lost to the internet.)
posted by vhsiv at 6:24 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


...it's not exactly a profit center.

yet.
posted by radiosilents at 6:29 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


in many cases without a warrant
If the gov't has a warrant, then the company has no choice.
And the company should be covered for the expenses it incurs.

The issue is: the cases with no warrant.
When does that happen? How often?

If the phone companies are regularly giving up such information without warrants,
then there should be outrage!
posted by Flood at 6:32 PM on April 3, 2012


Shouldn't they be called wireless taps?
posted by ShutterBun at 6:32 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Anybody know what actual work is involved in providing a "tower dump"? $500 seems like a pretty steep price to me, that may be above and beyond what it actually costs these companies to provide. I'm picturing someone simply pushing a few buttons and saving the data to a thumb drive which they present to the feds.
posted by parrot_person at 6:32 PM on April 3, 2012


Another angle, are these charges being passed onlong to convicted criminals in judgement fees?
posted by headless at 6:49 PM on April 3, 2012


Should they be compensated? If the government has a warrant for my computer, they don't have to pay me for it, they just take it. Why should companies get treated differently?
posted by Nothing at 6:50 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Because corporations are better than people, my friend.
posted by mek at 6:51 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Anybody know what actual work is involved in providing a "tower dump"? $500 seems like a pretty steep price to me, that may be above and beyond what it actually costs these companies to provide. I'm picturing someone simply pushing a few buttons and saving the data to a thumb drive which they present to the feds.

Well, you have to cover costs to program it in, etc. If it takes a coder 3 months to write the interface to get the data, then you have to make back $25k or whatever (including SS, health insurance and all other employment costs, not just salary)
posted by delmoi at 6:56 PM on April 3, 2012


I'm actually surprised by this; I figured the U.S. carriers got away with so much because they gave the DOJ goods for free (or cheap).

Might as well be free, they can just ask for more money or do a few drug busts after the sale has been completed.
posted by gjc at 7:07 PM on April 3, 2012


OK, here's the thing. Privacy is not, and has never been, an absolute right. It has always needed to be weighed against other rights and considerations, including law enforcement.

Specifically, article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights relevantly provides:
1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.
National level privacy legislation tends to include exemptions for law enforcement, because no one really thinks that privacy trumps safety.

The 'price list' link relates to the costs incurred by cell phone companies in complying with subpoenas. It is not evidence that cell phone companies are selling off personal info. Try again, because I don't doubt that cell phone companies are doing some terrible things.

I maintain my position that Forbes is a useless pile of crap that should be burned to ashes and scattered over the ocean so it can't reform, T1000-style.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:07 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


National level privacy legislation tends to include exemptions for law enforcement, because no one really thinks that privacy trumps safety.
Well, there has to be some safety level that you're willing to sacrifice for privacy, because in theory you are always 'safer' if monitored 24/7 then if not. You could slip and fall, and no one might know. You could be attacked by muggers.

If we require people to wear seat-belts and helmets for their own safety, then why not 24/7 monitoring. If safety were strictly more important then privacy, it would be a nobrainer.

Obviously people prefer some level privacy over some level of safety.
posted by delmoi at 7:43 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


What about people who like to live dangerously can we opt out?
posted by fuq at 8:05 PM on April 3, 2012


Well, there has to be some safety level that you're willing to sacrifice for privacy...

Yes, indeed. It's a balancing act. But police investigations must, by necessity, involve a level of privacy invasive behavior - it's investigation. The whole point of it is to track down people's movements, confirm their stories, collect evidence.

Exemptions in privacy legislation for law enforcement purposes shouldn't be (and usaully aren't) blanket exemptions. They should be for the purpose of actual police investigations, where the invasion is necessary and justified, with warrants being required and a whole bunch of other safeguards.

But I'm getting away from what I intended to be my point - this price list is not a smoking gun, or even an indication of wrong doing. It's been standard practice for police to track cell phone usage of suspects for nearly as long as there have been cell phones. Lots of suspects have cell phones, so police find themselves in the position that they want to issue a lot of subpoenas to cell phone companies. As such, the cell phone companes have developed streamlined standard procedures for dealing with those requests, including standard costs (rather than wasting the time calculating the specific cost of each individual request). They're not profiting here.

If the cell phone companies are handing over personal info without being compelled, that's pretty egregious.

because in theory you are always 'safer' if monitored 24/7 then if not. You could slip and fall, and no one might know. You could be attacked by muggers.

CCTV and other surveillance is not really about crime prevention, it's about evidence gathering. In the beginning, surveillance is a deterrent. After a while, people forget about it, and do what they would have done anyway. That's why it's so insidious.

If we require people to wear seat-belts and helmets for their own safety, then why not 24/7 monitoring. If safety were strictly more important then privacy, it would be a nobrainer.

Believe me, if law enforcement thought they could get away with this, they would try and implement it. And where they can, they have; see CCTV in London and elsewhere in the UK. The claim that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public has been capitalised on to the extent that you are under proactive surveillance a lot of the time in major cities. There's no question that it's intrusive. The question is whether the intrusion is worth it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:47 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


If the phone companies are regularly giving up such information without warrants, then there should be outrage!

If the cell phone companies are handing over personal info without being compelled, that's pretty egregious

"If"? Have you guys been hiding under a rock since 2005?
posted by hattifattener at 10:26 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


"If"? Have you guys been hiding under a rock since 2005?

No, Australia. Some might argue that is the same thing.

The last time I made a request to a phone company on behalf of a law enforcement agency, which I used to do on a regular basis, they required a subpoena. None of them would simply hand it over. As far as I know, that hasn't changed.

Then again, Australian privacy laws, although not without significant problems, are much better than US ones.

But that's not the point. Forbes did not write about evidence of personal info being handed to law enforcement outside of a lawful request. They wrote about a 'price list' for complying with subpoenas and similar - lawful requests authorised by a court.

What I am trying to impart that cell phone companies having standard practices for complying with lawful requests is nothing new. If you have good laws (which is debatable, certainly), it's not even a bad thing.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:36 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I am trying to impart that cell phone companies having standard practices for complying with lawful requests is nothing new.

Oh... and for Forbes to characterise this as evidence that cell phone companies are 'selling' personal info to all and sundry... well, it's nothing short of a flagrant lie.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:39 PM on April 3, 2012


Privacy keeps you safe. The less privacy I have the less safe I feel.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:51 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I... just... really don't want to be a part of this anymore.
posted by LordSludge at 10:59 PM on April 3, 2012


No, Australia.

Ah. Here are summaries of the US government's warrantless wiretapping program from Wikipedia, the EFF, and EPIC. Legality is a contentious issue, since the wiretaps are done under the theory that it's legal for the Executive to do whatever it wants because the US is at war (with "terror").
posted by hattifattener at 11:33 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah. Here are summaries of the US government's warrantless wiretapping program from Wikipedia, the EFF, and EPIC.

Thanks for that. Pretty terrible stuff.

Legality is a contentious issue, since the wiretaps are done under the theory that it's legal for the Executive to do whatever it wants because the US is at war (with "terror").

Sadly, I am familiar with the steaming pile of crap that is the US PATRIOT Act and its related enactments. It's a horrible, dangerous, rights-eroding, police state enabling piece of legislation.

But this is why I'm so annoyed at the Forbes article. It's not the fact that cell phone companies can recover the costs of complying with subpoenas or other lawful requests that is horrifying. It's the expansion of the lawful requests that can be made, and the lowering of the barriers to making those requests - the warrent wiretapping stuff to which you refer. The Forbes article completely misses the point, and misidentifies that bad guys.

I mean, cell phone companies suck, but they are complying with the law here.

Privacy keeps you safe. The less privacy I have the less safe I feel.

I concur. For one, if I wasn't pseudonymous on MeFi, i wouldn't be comfortable saying half the things I do here. But that veil allows me to reveal intimate personal anecdotes to strangers, and express opinions that could, in a different context, hurt me professionally. Privacy protects freedom of speech.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 12:39 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Verizon Says It Turned Over Data Without Court Orders

That's just the first article I found. AT&T is, of course, even worse. The telecoms aren't just complying with lawful orders, they're volunteering their customers' private communications absent any legal compulsion.
posted by Ictus at 2:42 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


But that veil allows me to reveal intimate personal anecdotes to strangers, and express opinions that could, in a different context, hurt me professionally. Privacy protects freedom of speech.

posted by His thoughts were red thoughts


I just finished watching "Good Night, and Good Luck" along with a documentary about the Army-McCarthy Hearings, and I've just gotta mention the eponysterical here.
posted by ShutterBun at 6:42 AM on April 4, 2012


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