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What it costs the government to snoop on your calls, emails and texts

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Most of the debate around the NSA snooping has focused on the privacy implications, but the Associated Press took a look at another facet of the surveillance: the cost. It found evidence to back up that the government (and thus, taxpayers) spends quite a bit of money to get private data from rank-and-file citizens.

The average wiretap costs $50,000 — which includes reimbursements and operational costs. The costs snowball depending on the length and breadth of the operation, and particularly on which companies are involved in the investigation. There are no rules on wiretapping fees, so every carrier sets its own figure:

  • AT&T charges a $325 “activation fee” for each wiretap and $10 per day for maintenance.
  • Verizon, far and away the most expensive, charges $775 for the first month and $500 for each month after that.
  • Sprint has a website that allows law enforcement to track location data for only $30 a month, though taps are not included.
  • Small carriers Cricket and U.S. Cellular charge $250 per wiretap.

Online sources are much less difficult to pull data from. The AP report notes that Facebook allows government to access data for free. Microsoft, Yahoo and Google don’t disclose how much it costs for the government to pull data, the ACLU discovered that email records can be turned over for as little as $25.

The government also makes plenty of requests, so big cell carriers have dedicated teams (AT&T keeps 100 employees, Verizon has 70) to sift through each individual request. Some of these teams even work around the clock, seven days a week, to process these requests, which number in the millions.

Processing all these requests also nets cellphone companies some revenue. AT&T reported to the AP that it collected $24 million over a period of four years, and Verizon reported similarly, receiving between $3 million and $5 million per year for the same time period.

We’ve covered plenty of goings-on with the NSA, from the implications of losing privacy to readily accessible meta data programs available on the Internet. It’s a can of worms, and perhaps that’s what Edward Snowden truly wanted.

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