Telecoms Make Money From Illegal Searches


I wrote recently about the ACLU document dump that shows how local police departments are using illegal cellphone tracking searches routinely. Turns out the telecom companies are making a pretty penny by charging those agencies for the data:

Here are a few of the highlights from the fee data.

  • Wiretaps cost hundreds of dollars per target every month, generally paid at daily or monthly rates. To wiretap a customer’s phone, T-Mobile charges law enforcement a flat fee of $500 per target. Sprint’s wireless carrier Sprint Nextel requires police pay $400 per “market area” and per “technology” as well as a $10 per day fee, capped at $2,000. AT&T charges a $325 activation fee, plus $5 per day for data and $10 for audio. Verizon charges a $50 administrative fee plus $700 per month, per target.
  • Data requests for voicemail or text messages cost extra. AT&T demands $150 for access to a target’s voicemail, while Verizon charges $50 for access to text messages. Sprint offers the most detailed breakdown of fees for various kinds of data on a phone, asking $120 for pictures or video, $60 for email, $60 for voice mail and $30 for text messages.
  • All four telecom firms also offer so-called “tower dumps” that allow police to see the numbers of every user accessing a certain cell tower over a certain time at an hourly rate. AT&T charges $75 per tower per hour, with a minimum of two hours. Verizon charges between $30 and $60 per hour for each cell tower. T-Mobile demands $150 per cell tower per hour, and Sprint charges $50 per tower, seemingly without an hourly rate.
  • For location data, the carrier firms offer automated tools that let police track suspects in real time. Sprint charges $30 per month per target to use its L-Site program for location tracking. AT&T’s E911 tool costs $100 to activate and then $25 a day. T-Mobile charges a much pricier $100 per day.

In an emailed statement to me, a Verizon spokesperson told me that the company doesn’t charge police in “emergency cases, nor do we charge law enforcement for historical location information in non-emergency cases.” He added that the company doesn’t “make a profit from any of the data requests from law enforcement.” A Sprint spokesperson sent me a statement saying that the company similarly doesn’t charge law enforcement for data requests in “exigent circumstances.”

That’s funny. Showing exigent and emergency circumstances is something that should be, according to the constitution and precedent, be done to a judge, not a telecom company. 4th Amendment? What 4th Amendment?

Comments

  1. says

    The price-sheets have been available on cryptome for years; the government was clever enough to realize that corporations would complain if they were expected to do something for free, but would cheerfully sell out their customers for a buck.

  2. unbound says

    Actually, rather than pointing out which amendments are no longer being respected anymore, it may be easier to point out which amendments are being respected…

  3. slc1 says

    I’m slightly confused here. Are we talking about wire taps, which I interpret as allowing the government to listen in and/or record conversations or are we talking about allowing the government to track the movements of individuals with cell phones? If we are only talking about tracking, the answer to that is to turn off the phone while traveling (or remove the batteries if the phone can be tracked even when turned off). In many jurisdictions, it is now illegal to use a cell phone while driving anyway.

  4. eric says

    Marcus – I’m actually kind of glad for the charges. Would you feel safer if corporations happily gave your information to the government for nothing?

    Yeah, what they should do is not cooperate at all (until they get a warrant). But as evils go, charging the government for our info is less evil than giving it to them gratis.

  5. wilsim says

    I disagree, Eric, because that is our(tax) money being paid out to telecoms for illegal activities.

  6. says

    @eric – it means that money the government extorts from me is used to surveil me. I really don’t appreciate that one bit. I’d rather they spent the money providing health care for the poor, or something useful.

  7. Brain Hertz says

    I don’t think the telecom companies will be making a huge profit here. Servicing these kinds of requests takes time and effort; even though the data might be available, you’ve still got to have a tech go and dig it out.

    Charging for it is about the best they can hope for. It’s not like they have a choice; the telcos are in the thrall of government regulators because they need them to be nice when it comes to spectrum allocations…

  8. Pinky says

    My Christmas wish this year is for a techy nerd type to come up with some program that would protect citizens from an intrusive government.

    Come on all you super intelligent early adapting high tech understanding people, invent something to throw a monkey wrench into efforts to violate our constitutional rights.

    ◄►◄►◄►◄►◄►◄►

    Anonymous; are you watching this?

    ◄►◄►◄►◄►◄►◄►

    Like the frogs in the slowly heating water, we are losing rights a little bit at a time, adjusting to it because it doesn’t hurt us too bad.

  9. crissakentavr says

    No program can stop people from using it wrongly.

    My spouse was one of the snazzy telecom programmers who created retrofitted programming so that they could use triangulated towers to find or track a phone – this is important technology, allowing emergency services to find people when they’re in need of help.

    We just need to make sure police actually get warrants or file the proper records proving their emergency requests.

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