Shocking study on how much the government pays to spy on you

With Edward Snowden’s revelation of the NSA’s PRISM program, domestic surveillance has become one of the most talked-about subjects of the day. But forget the moral implications for a second and think about the practicalities: Ever wonder how much the government spends to spy on you? Turns out, it’s a lot.

USA Today published in in-depth piece on the matter and it brought about more questions than answers. Let us first get down to brass tax— it costs the United States Government on average $50,000 per wiretap when everything is said in done. Take a second to breathe before screaming at the computer. That is your money they are spending to spy on you.

This piece, however, will not be dissecting whether or not snooping on citizens is the moral thing to do (there are far too many articles on that online already) rather it will outline the actual cost of gaining these wiretaps from cell companies and will look at the economics surrounding it.

Here is the breakdown for most of the nation’s leading carriers: AT&T imposes a $325 “activation fee” per wiretap and $10’s a day to monitor it, Cricket and U.S. Cellular charge only about $250 per wiretap, and Verizon charges the government $775 for the first month and $500 each month after that. All this is according to industry disclosures made last year to Congressman Edward Markey. Email records (such as with Edward Snowden) are much easier to come by at around $25 per account.

While industry leaders say they do not profit from the hundreds of thousand wiretaps done per year, it is really impossible to know what the right price for your privacy is. Not getting too far into it, there is no real solution, economically speaking, for this market. Normally with products we have a consumer driven and/or profit driven market; however there is no real price to put on information. For instance, if the government really needed the data at that moment they would pay the cellular companies whatever they asked.

Therefore there is no knowing whether or not the cell companies are not making a profit and charging the right price other than taking their word for it. On the other side of the coin, we as consumers do not want to be giving our information up for free. If it was free for the government to spy on us then what is stopping them from doing it to all of us?

Christopher Soghoin, the ACLU’s principal technologist brings up a great point: “What we don’t want is surveillance to become a profit center. [But] it’s always better to charge $1. It creates friction, and it creates transparency” because it generates a paper trail that can be tracked.

A money trail is important to keep our government in check but ultimately the amount that should be charged will be unknown. Regardless of the price that is charged the surveillance business is booming. AT&T employs roughly 100 people and Sprint employs 70 people to handle the quarter-million requests they get each year.

Economics aside, the idea that we are not the sole owners of our information that is passed through multimedia devices is a scary thought. As to when we lost this battle your guess is as good as mine. But if what has come to light recently is any indication, the government has been spying on us for a very long time.

Ultimately what is most infuriating is that we are paying the $50,000 per wiretap. The exorbitant cell-phone taxes you pay for that brand new iPhone 5 are fundamentally going toward possibly spying on you in the future. Unfortunately it brings up more questions than answers, but knowledge is power.

Photo via The Atlantic.