Verizon and AT&T, among others, have been making millions by charging government spy agencies to wiretap its customers. Verizon charges the most, with AT&T in a very distant second and, since it’s essentially U.S. tax dollars being used by government agencies, Americans are basically paying for themselves to be wiretapped.
A letter from William Petersen, a member of the general council with Verizon, to Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) outlined Verizon’s pricing. Verizon’s price rubric more than doubles that AT&T’s with the prices set at $775 for the first month and then charging $500 for each subsequent month, whereas AT&T charges a $325 “activation fee” for each wiretap followed by $10 a day. Altogether, Verizon accrued up to an estimated $25 million from 2007 to 2011 through wiretap revenue.
The number of government requests for information to wiretap customers increased exponentially during those four years. Since the government puts in about a quarter million requests annually, Verizon has enlisted a team of 70 employees working all hours, including weekends, to keep up with the demand. AT&T has a group of about 100 performing the same task.
The process has gotten the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is critical of the arrangement fearing that it may become a for-profit endeavor. The ACLU’s principal technologist Christopher Soghoian said “What we don’t want is surveillance to become a profit center.”
Petersen remained sturdy against the notion that Verizon was selling information to the government: “We do not sell [our] customers’ personal information to law enforcement. Rather, we comply with legal process requiring us to provide specific information… In those circumstances where we do charge law enforcement, we do so in accordance with law and seek reimbursement for only a portion of our reasonable expenses.”
What Petersen tries to bolster with business lexicon, he loses in logic. When two parties make a transaction where a product or service is given in exchange for money, it constitutes a sale. And what he is claiming as “reasonable expenses” is just overhead like every other company has; wages, resources, etc. The arrangement between the phone companies and the government just seems to be another business proposition.
Joshua de Leon is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.