Profiting from government surveillance

Joseph Waring

Profiting from government surveillance

April 10, 2012

It recently came to light that mobile operators in the US are charging police departments substantial sums for wiretaps and other requests for their users' personal cellphone data, with the fees differing widely -- from $325 per wiretap target per month to as much as $700.

The American Civil Liberties Union last week released a report based on more than 5,000 page of internal records from 205 police departments in the US, which it obtained through a Freedom of Information request, detailing the prices mobile phone companies charge law enforcement agencies for mobile phone tracking data.

According to an article in Forbes magazine, the Tucson, Arizona police department provided a list outlining the specific costs for the various types of "data requests". All the US cellcos reportedly have created manuals for police outlining how they can access the data they store.

Each carrier dictates the charges, which can vary greatly. T-Mobile charges a flat fee of $500 per wiretap while Sprint Nextel wants $400 per "market area" and per "technology" as well as a $10 fee per day, capped at $2,000 (if it would only do that for its 3G data users). The going rate at AT&T is just $325, plus $10 per day for voice and $5 for data. Meanwhile, Verizon charges $700 per month and a $50 admin fee.

Of course the telcos have fees for everything else. Voicemail or text messages will set the police or FBI back $30-$60 and pictures and video cost as much as $120 at Sprint.

For location data, the mobile operators are particularly helpful to local authorities, offering them automated tools that let them track suspects in real time. These fees range from $30 a month (Sprint) to $100 per day (T-Mobile). AT&T charges $25 a day as well as a $100 activation fee.

With retail ARPU in decline, this could be a great revenue generator for telcos in Asia in the future. And why limit the sharing of customer info to domestic requests? At the right price, many APAC operators would likely be willing to hand over customer data when requested or "encouraged" to by allies or highly persuasive superpowers with fat wallets.

But telcos best act fast and be careful they don't charge too much. A small town in Arizona spent $244,000 on tracking equipment to avoid having to pay mobile operators.

For the record, both Verizon and Sprint spokespeople told Forbes they don't make a profit from the requests and don't charge police in "emergency cases", so those fees are strictly to cover their internal costs. Indeed strange how the internal costs differ so widely -- must be the overall efficiency, or inefficiency, of their back-office systems. Nothing that a good old-fashion OSS/BSS transformation project couldn't fix.

It's interesting to note that ten law enforcement agencies in the US say they don't track cellphones, a practice that in many cases doesn't require a warrant.

You can find more cellphone tracking info obtained by the ACL at: http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/cell_phone_tracking_documents_-_final.pdf
 

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Joseph Waring
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