Low Cost Surveillance Means The Surveillance Of Us All

Besides the highly illegal, immoral and unethical level of government surveillance,  mobile networks also have to take their share of the blame.

While much has been said on both sides of the debate, one argument often used to justify this big brother style monitoring is the amount of money that law enforcement units can save as a result.

This argument falls flat on its face, and has the potential to spin us further into the Orwellian nightmare we’re currently in, as soon as we realise that the low cost of surveillance means that almost everyone, anywhere, can be tracked – instead of those who truly pose a risk to our safety and actually warrant it.

Today an article by TelecomTV reports on the financial cost:

Mobile networks provide huge cost saving to law enforcement

Kevin Bankston, Policy Director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, co-authored a paper with independent researcher Ashkan Soltani for the Yale Law Journal. Their paper, “Tiny Constables and the Cost of Surveillance: Making Cents Out of United States v. Jones” sought to quantify the cost of surveillance in the mobile age, and to stimulate debate about US constitutional rights.

To start with, they looked at traditional surveillance costs. In their model, the primary cost of foot pursuit is the salary of the agent. An FBI agent’s total salary is approximately $130,000 per year, so they have estimated the hourly “pay cost” for an FBI agent to conduct surveillance on foot to be $50 per hour. Covert foot pursuit with five agents (a standard operational model) is therefore $250 per hour. The use of a car in a pursuit adds about $5 per hour, so that five agents in five cars would cost about $275 an hour.

Now for the tech. Mobile phone tracking using a simple IMSI Catcher or ‘Stingray’ as they are known in the US works out at $105 per hour — due to the cost of buying it in the first place.

For GPS tracking, the monthly fee to hire the unit, plus two hours of salary for each of two agents to install and uninstall the device, brings the average cost of GPS surveillance to $10 per hour (falling to as low as $0.36 per hour if used over a 28 day period).

Finally, there’s mobile phone tracking with carrier assistance. Rather than pursue a suspect in the field, law enforcement agents can track subjects by following the signal of their mobile phones by obtaining location information from the network operator. According to data gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union, phone companies provide this data to law enforcements at varying rates: as of August 2009, Sprint charged $30 per month per target, AT&T charged $25 a day plus an upfront $100 fee, and T-Mobile charged a huge $100 per day. Put another way, the estimated hourly cost for operator-assisted mobile phone tracking ranged from $1.25 to $5.21, although these prices would fall if tracking was required over a longer period (and they are based on 2009 numbers, so are no doubt lower today).