April 4, 2012 at 4:48 PM ET
Wireless providers provide location information and other data to local law enforcement officers, even if those requests are made without a warrant – but they don't do it for free.
Itemizing info from documents released earlier this week by the American Civil Liberties Union, Forbes security Andy Greenberg found that police departments often pay wireless carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon hundreds or thousands of taxpayer dollars per person on such requests.
The documents were part of the ACLU's extensive report on cellphone surveillance by local police. Most of the 200 law enforcement agencies that responded to the ACLU's records requests track location and call logs without probable cause. Records from the Tucson, Ariz., police department – dated July 2009 – listed the fees, "included a breakdown of every major carrier’s fees for every sort of data request from targeted wiretaps to so-called 'tower dumps' that provide information on every user of certain cell tower. Here's how Greenberg breaks down fees charged by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. (He does not budget for inflation.)
- 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.
Verizon is the only company that responded to Greenberg's request for comments, telling him "the company doesn’t make a profit from any of the data requests from law enforcement.”