WASHINGTON — Regardless of price, the surveillance business is growing. The U.S. government long has enjoyed access to phone networks and high-speed Internet traffic under the U.S. Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act to catch suspected criminals and terrorists. More recently, the FBI has pushed technology companies like Google and Skype to guarantee access to real-time communications on their services. And, as shown by recent disclosures about the NSA's surveillance practices, the U.S. intelligence community has an intense interest in analyzing data and content that flow through American technology companies to gather foreign intelligence.
The FBI said it could not say how much it spends on industry reimbursements because payments are made through a variety of programs, field offices and case funds. In an emailed statement, the agency said when charges are questionable, it requests an explanation and tries to work with the carrier to understand its cost structure.
Technology companies have been a focus of law enforcement and the intelligence community since 1994, when Congress allotted $500 million to reimburse phone companies to retrofit their equipment to accommodate wiretaps on the new digital networks.
But as the number of law enforcement requests for data grew and carriers upgraded their technology, the cost of accommodating government surveillance requests increased. AT&T, for example, said it devotes roughly 100 employees to review each request and hand over data. Likewise, Verizon said its team of 70 employees works around the clock, seven days a week to handle the quarter-million requests it gets each year.
To discourage gratuitous requests and to prevent losing money, industry turned to a section of federal law that allows companies to be reimbursed for the cost of "searching for, assembling, reproducing and otherwise providing" communications content or records on behalf of the government. The costs must be "reasonably necessary" and "mutually agreed" upon with the government.