Monday, the Obama administration filed a lawsuit in a district court, claiming Sprint knowingly charged $21 million extra in spying fees between 2007 and 2010.
Sprint, the telecommunications provider, complied with court orders to wiretap for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, and other government agencies. It charged the U.S. government reimbursement fees for the costs of complying with wiretaps and intercepts.
But the government finds fault with this. The U.S. points to the Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), a law that makes wiretapping more manageable for law enforcement agencies. Associated Press explains:
In 1994, lawmakers passed a law requiring communication companies to upgrade their equipment and facilities to ensure they can comply with court orders seeking wiretaps of their customers.
Section 103 of the law says that carriers are “prohibited from using their intercept charges to recover the costs of modifying equipment, facilities or services that were incurred,” U.S. attorneys wrote in the complaint. But Sprint did charge for these services, and it led to a 58 percent hike in expenses for the federal government.
The Electric Frontier Foundation, in a FAQ disputing the law, argued that demanding telecommunication companies pick up the tab for government’s surveillance expenses is unreasonable. Added costs for the carrier are most likely passed on to the consumer. “Quite literally,” it reads, “consumers would be subsidizing the surveillance state.”
Regardless, Sprint thinks that the law rolls in its favor and that the government must pony up for the added expenses incurred. Sprint issued a statement to Ars Technica:
Under the law, the government is required to reimburse Sprint for its reasonable costs incurred when assisting law enforcement agencies with electronic surveillance. The invoices Sprint has submitted to the government fully comply with the law.
The U.S. seeks $63 million, or triple the costs incurred, if Sprint is found guilty.
The telecommunications company will challenge the lawsuit, “We have fully cooperated with this investigation and intend to defend this matter vigorously.”