Sunday, October 21, 2007

What Does Uncle Sam Pay to Read Your E-Mail?

ABC News reports:

If you cringe when your read your monthly Internet or phone bill, take heart: Uncle Sam probably does too.

According to an internal Comcast cable company document, the giant cable-Internet-phone provider charges the government $1,000 nearly every time the FBI or other intelligence or law enforcement agency wants to surveil a person's e-mail or digital phone account.

Comcast provides cable-based communications service to millions of Americans. A company spokeswoman told ABC News "our first priority is our customers' privacy, but we want to balance that with the legitimate needs of law enforcement."

On top of its "start-up" fee, Comcast charges state and federal authorities $750 a month to maintain electronic surveillance, according to the document, which was obtained by the nonprofit Secrecy News Web site.

The fees are charged for nearly all law enforcement or intelligence surveillance requests. In cases involving child exploitation, Comcast waives the fees, the document states.

In addition to those surveillance services, Comcast can also provide state and federal authorities with customer billing information for a fee, according to the 35-page document, entitled "Law Enforcement Handbook." The company strives to respond "within eight to ten days" to government requests, the handbook states.

Depending on the type of information an agency wants, it can submit a letter of request, a criminal warrant, obtain a court order, submit a secret intelligence warrant or use a controversial "National Security Letter," according to the handbook.

The document sheds light on the quiet cooperation some communications companies give government authorities, at a time when aspects of that relationship are coming under fire.

Communications companies are required by law to provide law enforcement access to customer information and records that are needed for criminal investigations, as well as for certain intelligence operations.

The Democrat-led Congress, however, is turning up the heat on the Bush administration and major telecommunications carriers for a domestic spying operation involving phone and Internet customers that many people, including former Justice Department officials, believe operated outside the law.

Little is known about the effort, which the White House has since named the "Terrorist Surveillance Program," other than that it apparently involved the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) and carriers like AT&T and Verizon, which provided the government with customers' phone records.

Congressional leaders have said the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to provide details on the program, although the White House has said it had "fully briefed" them.

In letters to Congress released yesterday, carriers AT&T, Verizon and Qwest declined to discuss the program. Qwest has previously stated it declined to participate in the program, despite overtures from the administration.

There have been no reports that Comcast, which provides digital phone service to 3.5 million people, has been involved in the TSP.

The Comcast handbook, dated September 2007 and stamped "Comcast Confidential," does not say how many requests for surveillance assistance Comcast has received.