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America's Spy State: How the Telecoms Sell Out Your Privacy

Your seemingly private information is a public commodity, subject to the dictates of the security state and market opportunists.

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Even more alarming, if a company, journalist, person or attorney receives an NSL, they are barred from informing anyone, including the press, about the order. And the NSL is but one of an expanding number of means employed by the surveillance state to spy on an ever-growing, in effect unknowable, number of Americans.

The policies of today’s security state were instituted by a Republican, George W. Bush, and continued with even-greater vigilance by a Democrat, Barack Obama. Whoever wins in November will, if the economic suffering persists and austerity further imposed, the security state will be extended, particularly to spy on alleged domestic “threats.”

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21st century surveillance is a multi-headed hydra united by a string of 0s and 1s.

Some of this spying is banal. Two U.S. malls -- Promenade Temecula in southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, VA – are tracking guests’ movements by monitoring the signals from their cell phones. Using a FootPath Technology’s application, the malls capture a guest’s phone’s unique identification number and follow a shopper’s path from store to store.

Some of this spying is sci-fi. According to a CNET report, the FBI has used an innovative means of electronic surveillance in criminal investigations. It remotely activates a mobile phone's microphone and uses it to eavesdrop on a nearby conversation. The technique is known as a "roving bug" and was approved for use by top DoJ officials in a New York organized crime case.

And some of this spying is good-old business as usual. The ACLU uncovered a lucrative scheme involving the security state outsourcing data gathering to the major telecommunications companies. The documents provides detailed information on the practices of Alltel, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint/Nextel, Microsoft/Skype, Vonage, U.S. Wireless, Comcast, Embarq and Cricket.

The major telcos charge hundreds of dollars per wireline telephone wiretap and charge extra for the tracking of voicemail, text messages, GPS locations and other services. Profiles of some of these activities and the fees charged follow:

-- AT&T – charges a $325 per wiretap activation fee, plus $5 per day for data and $10 for audio; it gets $150 for access to a target’s voicemail; it charges $75 per “tower dump” (these allow police to see the numbers of every user accessing a certain cell tower and charges are on a per hour basis, with a minimum of two hours); location tracking costs $100 to activate and then $25 a day.

-- Verizon -- charges a $50 administrative fee plus $700 per month, per wiretap, per target; it charges $50 for access to text messages; it charges between $30 and $60 per hour for each cell tower dump; it doesn’t charge police in “emergency cases, nor do we charge law enforcement for historical location information in non-emergency cases.” The company insists that it doesn’t “make a profit from any of the data requests from law enforcement.”

-- T-Mobile – charges law enforcement a flat fee of $500 per target per wiretap; it charges $150 per cell tower dump per hour; and charges a much pricier $100 per day for location tracking.

-- Sprint/Nextel – charges $400 per wiretap per “market area” and per “technology” as well as a $10 per day fee, capped at $2,000; it also charges $120 for pictures or video, $60 for email, $60 for voice mail and $30 for text messages; it also charges $50 per tower dump and $30 per month per target for location tracking. The company says it doesn’t charge law enforcement for data requests in “exigent circumstances.” It adds: “Fees are charged to law enforcement in other circumstances such as court ordered requests and it’s important to note that any fee charged is for recovery of cost required to support these law enforcement requests 24/7.”

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