AH Tech Talk: Report says Cellphone Surveillance Costs as Little as $5 Per Hour

Apparently, surveillance is cheap. A report from Ashkan Soltani and Kevin Bankston breaks down what it costs the U.S. government to spy on its citizens, and it's not much. Soltani is a security researcher and Bankston is a lawyer on Capital Hill. The two examined surveillance techniques that were brought before the Supreme Court in different cases. What they found is quite eye-opening.

The report that they wrote focuses on four different surveillance techniques. The first is covert surveillance, the second is beeper tracking, the third is GPS tracking, and the fourth is cellphone tracking. The report was actually inspired by a simple question. How is GPS tracking different from tailing a suspect using a unmarked law enforcement vehicle? The answer: over $200 per hour.

What was worrisome about the report is that cellphone surveillance is by the cheapest method that the government uses, at only $5.21 per hour. That means that the U.S. government can track us by our cellphones for the about the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The other techniques that the report looked at weren't much more expensive. GPS tracking is only $10 per hour. However, having a live person follow a suspect costs $275 per hour. You can see why the government wants to use these new technological methods. Soltani is worried that it's only going to get worse for U.S. citizens. "Once the cost approaches zero," Soltani writes, "we will be left with only outdated laws as the limiting function."

Soltani says the point of the report is that "privacy protections are often made possible due to structural transaction costs." The cost of electronic surveillance will continue to decrease. The instances of a government officer tailing a suspect may not decrease, but they will get more expensive. With the introduction of automated drones, though, we may not even know that we are being followed. There won't be a car in your rear view mirror, just a drone flying thousands of feet above you, watching your every move. And with PRISM using tactics like email collection, we're certainly being watched when we're using an electronic device. You can find the full article on the Yale Law Journal website.

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Jeremiah Nelson

Staff Writer / Podcast Host
Jeremiah Nelson has loved Android since the OG Moto DROID. He spends his free time listening to metal and flashing new ROMs.
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