back to article US gov claims it spent TOO MUCH on wiretaps – and blames SPRINT

The Barack Obama administration has filed a civil lawsuit against US wireless operator Sprint, alleging that the carrier intentionally overcharged law enforcement agencies for services related to American government wiretapping programs. Under current US law, telecommunications carriers are required to assist law enforcement …


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  1. Thorne

    Don't like the bill?

    Then stop bugging everyone.....

    1. BillG

      Re: Don't like the bill?

      The Barack Obama administration has filed a civil lawsuit against US wireless operator Sprint, alleging that the carrier intentionally overcharged law enforcement agencies for services related to American government wiretapping programs.

      PLEASE El Reg, you *really* need an icon for irony!!!

  2. Old Handle

    A jury trial huh? That's curious. I'd have expected they'd still be trying (however hopelessly) to keep this stuff hush-hush. It almost seems like that has to be an attempt to send a message or something. But damned if I can figure out what the message is.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Seems to boil down to: "we're going to spy on you and you'll pay us for the privilege". Either Sprint gets us to pay, or the gov gets us to pay. Thank you sir, may I have another?

      1. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

        Next, they'll be charging us for the bullet they use at our execution.

    2. Don Jefe

      There won't be any jury trial. Well, I guess they can call it whatever they want, but a 'jury trial' where the jury doesn't get to be in the courtroom or weigh evidence that hasn't been proofed, redacted, and obfuscated just doesn't sound like much of a jury trial.

    3. Ole Juul

      A jury trial huh?

      That is indeed interesting. I believe that a jury trial is normally requested if you don't feel that a judge will rule in your favour based on facts of law. With a bench trial, the judge is often assumed to favour the government - yet they want to take their chances with a jury?

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: A jury trial huh?

        Jury trials involving corporations are always insanely confusing too. If the Government prosecutors can't demonstrate intent to defraud about all they can do is give their auditor a raise for noticing the issue.

        Without intent it all becomes a big confusing mess that amounts to nothing more than a misprinted price in a catalog or on a website. Sprints Government Services Group will be using the pricing codes assigned by Finance after reviewing the costs provided by the Data Analysis Department. Normally, each Department Head would sign off on the validity of their groups figures, but the Data Analysis Head didn't have security clearance so, following Company Policy those figures had been sent to the CIO, who had clearance, but was a foreign national with Permanent Residency, but was involved as a government witness in a billing case of another service provider so he couldn't even look at the figures. Policy said the COO was next in line but he looked at it, said 'What the fuck is this shit? Whose budget gets hit with this? I'm not touching it. Send it to Marketing, they like expensive things that don't seem to do anything'. Marketing said nope, and off it goes to legal. Legal was, under contract, prohibited from spending more than one (1) Man Hour on any document not pertaining to current litigation and that had been reviewed by another Dept Head. Since this document had been looked at by just about every department in the company, in less than 2mins it was stamped 'Approved' (but the lawyer still got his 1/4hr of process work of whic he gets 60% and his firm gets 40% of as long as there are no sea lions in the lobby.

        The sea lions thing may, or may not, be valid, but I guarantee the jury will be treated to the most complex look inside a company they've ever seen. You thought those middle managers were just wasting time with those ridiculous flow charts and OrgCharts didn't you? Nope, those horrid charts are specifically designed to clog up the works if they are needed.

        I was in a court room once and saw a Defense Witness call into doubt the flow chart he was looking at because his chart key for that revision didn't have that shade of blue on it so he couldn't say with certainty if that was the official policy at the time of the event, because he didn't trust the chart.

        The best part of all this, is the GSA has to pay for 100% of legal costs and 'Damage to Brand Perception' if the prosecution of a government led case fails. Which it will do because the Jury has been rendered 90% retarded by the best confusion money can buy and behavioral science can create.

      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: A jury trial huh?

        > yet they want to take their chances with a jury?

        Remember the government gets to pick the jury.

        Plus the government has a list of all the websites each jury member visited and pictures of them naked if they use Yahoo

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: A jury trial huh?

          Remember the government gets to pick the jury.

          No, it does not. And the particular branches of the government acting as plaintiff and plaintiff's counsel in this case certainly do not, though obviously they play a significant role in jury selection.

  3. Gene Cash Silver badge


    Hm. If I was on that jury, I'd give Sprint a free pass, to encourage this sort of thing.

    1. Thorne

      Re: Dilemma

      If you have to buy equipment to comply on the government's spying demands, then they should pay for it.

      The only thing the government has a right to complain about is not getting a discount for spying in bulk...

  4. Ashton Black


    They could have come up with a contract "Spying Plan", free spying on evenings and weekends? Then shaft them if they go over their 1Gb limit?

    1. Tom 35

      Re: Alternatively

      Free spying on 5 friends or government leaders.

  5. Don Jefe

    Instant Win

    I swear to God, I would turn James Clappers words right back at the Feds. It would be fucking hilarious too. NO Ha! They should subpoena Clapper and make him testify as to what the government was allegedly looking for, if it was found, who had it and what they did about it. How did this company's billing compare to the other phone companies. Charts too. Gotta demand charts. I don't give a shit if he was involved or not. Just subpoena the shit out of him.

    But seriously, what the hell was the government expecting? If you're leaning on private companies to force them to stretch acceptable (dis)respect for the rights of individuals you ought to expect some over billing. 'Psst. Hey, we want you to do this 'thing' for us. Just keep it off the books and everybody will be happy'.

    You know, even ruthless Mexican drug lords and barely literate Italian mob stereotypes know and accept you skimming a bit off if you're keeping things quiet. I find it wholly unacceptable that my government wants to skirt its own laws without paying the fee. This is the United States you crusty old sphincter snake. I've been taught my entire life that ignoring the law is fine if you can afford it and I expect you to live up to the expectations and faith we've placed in you.

    Mr. President, pay the fucking bill and shut up. It's my god given right to overcharge the government and doubly so when being complicit in shady shit. Cash is preferred, but Bitcoin is accepted with a 11.32% service charge. We know you've got the Bitcoins you know. Your FBI strongman was bragging about it to the global media the other day.

    So shut the fuck up, send the money. Intern, bring me my bourbon wagon and 30 cartons of Marlboro Reds (box please). I'm not moving until I get the money. Every last filthy penny of it.

  6. mIRCat
    Black Helicopters

    Overcharged to the tune of $21m.

    What's that phrase about a fool and his money? Surely if Sprint were guilty of such an act the N.S.A. would have electronically intercepted any internal communique and have turned it over to their sister agencies before now. I guess all they heard was a pin drop

    My my $21,000,000 is a pretty tune.

    1. Peter Simpson 1

      Re: Overcharged to the tune of $21m.

      Pocket change. Do you know what the war in the Middle East is costing us...*per day*?

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: Overcharged to the tune of $21m.

        I'll have you know, the US has never been to war in the 'Middle East'. The Middle East refers to Israel and the parts of Israel occupied by Palestinian Terrorist Training Facilities. Everything else is Southwest Asia, Western Asia, Near East, Western Orient or my favorite the Far West Eastern Orient.

        In only kind of joking. Every US agency has editorial guidelines for referring to other countries/regions depending on the subject at hand. For example, if it's the UK that's involved with US (ha!) and it isn't a trade/commerce issue the preferred term is 'Patsy'. Another example is Crimea, which I overheard Saturday at a bar here in DC. I was quite surprised to learn the Irish had conquered Crimea in the mid 19th Century and were now under attack by the Ukrainians.

        Take that as a lesson. It's really important to know the correct protocols for referring to far off lands. Look at all the trouble Indians have caused us. I know that didn't go so well, but I've read where we supported their development of Nuclear Weapons and provide them with resources to maintain the planets largest fleet of military helicopters. But they just never stop. Every time I check into a hotel here they always ask me if I've got reservations. Christ, you know. Lay off it guys. That shit was a long time ago and we already gave you reservations all over the country. If that's not good enough you're going to have to be more clever. Even if I wanted to, I can't get you reservation space in Manhattan. I just don't have the resources. Try the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There's a 7-11 on the corner of their block with a huge Slurpee sign, you can't miss it.

  7. T. F. M. Reader

    Clever wording

    I am troubled and concerned by untargeted, warrantless snooping by NSA and their ilk no less than any other commentard, but I could not help noticing that neither NSA nor FISA nor terrorism nor national security were mentioned by the lawsuit, by Bloomberg, or by El Reg. FBI, DEA, USMS, ATF, IRS, ICE, US Postal Inspection Service, US Secret Service, and Defence Criminal Investigation Service were named in the lawsuit. All those may have quite legitimate reasons to wiretap selected targets by court order.

    El Reg cleverly uses rather provocative wording, "services related to American government wiretapping programs". This certainly brings up unpleasant associations, but is it ... ahem ... warranted? Bloomberg specifically talks of "cost of assisting in court-ordered wiretaps". The lawsuit also talks of "assistance ... in executing court orders".

    Might this be, in fact, about actual crimefighting *not* related to Snowden's revelations? Hmm, OK, not *completely* related? Oh, well, what are the chances?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Clever wording

      You are correct in your assessment, IMO, about the agencies involved in this "billing" and the court orders. I'm not sure it's El Reg's writing or the press releases though that send us more nervous types into warp mode. I suspect that it's the press releases by Sprint and the government that are pushing us into that dark area.

      Could it be actual crimefighting? We'll probably never know as a lot of this court ordered stuff is sealed until the trial. No trial? They stay sealed. NSA? Sealed forever, trial or not and the nature of the NSA's orders would ensure that they were not named in a lawsuit over this anyway.

      Even with Snowden's revelations, I daresay we'll never know the full extent of what's being captured in the way of data. At this point, I suspect that things are even worse than what he's revealed as they've had time to improve and change their tactics.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Clever wording

      If I look at US law I wonder why anyone still bothers getting a warrant for wiretapping. There are so many backdoors for government without pesky oversight it almost seems superfluous - unless, of course, you're one of the few left that want to prove they do the RIGHT thing (because they do exist, but we have a tendency to focus on the abusers).

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Clever wording

      I expect that this is all covered under CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) which requires that carriers assist law enforcement in court-ordered wiretaps. It's part of the cost of business for any US carriers, so accordingly the US Government will get upset if they are charged more than is allowed by law. It would appear that Sprint charged things to the government that would otherwise be just a cost of doing business.

  8. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    The supreme irony would be...

    If it came out in court that this case was built on NSA intercepts of Sprint exec's phones.

    Take that, NSA flunkies!!

  9. James 51

    Sounds like cut-throat capitalism in action. Isn't that the American way?

  10. pacman7de

    Usual way of doing business with the Gov ..

    "The Obama administration's lawsuit accuses Sprint of breaking those rules by charging law enforcement agencies for costs that were inflated by as much as 58 per cent"

    Isn't this the usual way of doing business the Gov, it isn't as if it was their own money ...

  11. Crisp

    Sprint have missed a trick here...

    What Sprint should do is charge the NSA even more for their services, and then pass that money back to consumers in the form of cheap/free calls.

    Everybody wins. Sprint make loads of money and get customers. Sprint customers get a subsidised service. The NSA get people to spy on. What's not to like?

    1. Suricou Raven

      Re: Sprint have missed a trick here...

      This wasn't for the NSA. It was for the conventional police - the ones who (usually) get warrants first.

      1. Crisp

        Re: Sprint have missed a trick here...

        That'll teach me to read the frigging article!

      2. Don Jefe


        All my hilarious earlier commentary aside, yes, this is a regular police issue. But it's actually indicative of a very real problem here in the States.

        Interdepartmental Willy Waving costs just scads of money. Every Federal Agency and every State and Local agency has their own, very particular, set of standards they want their requested data to comply with. From formatting and font sizes/colors to file types and predefined filters.

        On its face, that doesn't sound outlandish, everybody is going to be looking for something different in the data. That's why we have all these different agencies. But when you start digging in, everybody is asking for the exact same thing 99.99% of the time, they just want it dressed up how they like.

        It wasn't dealing with common 'bad guy' stuff like this but a company I once worked for was sued, first by a really long, mostly vertically aligned, State on the West Coast, then by 11 other States because they found out we were doing side by side comparisons of data requests from various agencies (no actual data was involved, just their specs) and they felt that criminals could learn useful 'criminal stuff' if some other, notoriously untrustworthy, agencies and States let something leak due to their shoddy internal practices.

        It came down to them 'demonstrating' the failures in our approach by pointing out variable in out queries didn't match the names of data they had requested. That turned out to be most certainly correct. I was there when we designed the databases, but after reviewing my meeting notes, I confirmed not a single government representative was present during those meetings. That's been my rule for many decades, if you're too busy to come to the meeting or at least send a representative then your input will not be considered in the final outcomes. Tough shit. Besides [CustBDay] is in fact the Date of Birth for the customer you want the data on. We've leveraged millions in technological investment and some of the brightest computer science people in the world to develop the ability to label column headings in almost any way imaginable.

        Anyway, as you note, this isn't a big spooky covert Federal surveillance program. These are just cops. But at the same time, if you've got to assign a bunch of dedicated resources to meet the wishes of every different agency it's going to get really expensive. Warrant or not. Last year somebody on this site had suggested a 'Lawful Data Clearinghouse' agency which handled all govt requests for private data. As much as I dislike government bureaucracy, I actually think that's a good idea. It would cut down on a lot of the insane costs that Sprint will certainly be able to justify.

        1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

          Re: @Suricou

          I suspect it's too much to ask for, but wouldn't there be a way to establish a common format at federal level, and make agencies responsible for their own translation interface? Or is the data so diverse that this becomes too unwieldy?

          Starting from one standard seems to make more sense, because at that point you have a definition you can work with. If you want to wrangle the date into your own convoluted mess you are welcome to blow your own budget on it.

          Just musing, it's probably too sensible to work in a political environment :)

    2. Sureo

      Re: Sprint have missed a trick here...

      To take your idea a step further, the NSA should start its own telecom company with attractive rates. They could then cut out those pesky middlemen and get direct access to their targets.

  12. sisk

    Trial by jury?

    I can't say I think much of the odds of the government winning a trial by jury over fees they paid for wiretapping. That is unless they get a jury that's been living under a rock or something. By and large the American public is unhappy about the mass data collection. At least the portion of it that pays attention is.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Out of court settlement...

    I can see a secret out of court settlement coming where the Government will bribe Sprint into giving spooks complete access to the phone network in return for not being fined into bankruptcy!

  14. Stevie Silver badge


    Why this is funny: Taxpayers foot the bill to be spied on, then fund the lawsuit too. It's just abonus that Sprint customers will foot the bill for damages (which in all likelihood will be appealed at more expense to everyone).

    I often wonder idly how much less litigation and how much more oversight would happen if the bills had to be paid for by the politicians involved.

  15. Stevie Silver badge


    I have the perfect defense: 'We aren't allowed to itemize your charges because they are a matter of national security. Indeed, we aren't allowed to acknowledge such charges exist. And you aren't allowed to ask about it all anyway, because if you do the terrorists win."

  16. MooseNC

    Well, when you are dealing with illegal goods and services, the price is usually higher...

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "In addition, Sprint could be forced to pay punitive damages of between $5,500 and $11,000 for each time it is found to have billed improperly."

    I'm sure Sprint made more than that off of each request, so they still will come out ahead.

    Will that be a jury trial at a secret court with secret jurors?

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