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Feds seek limits on wiretap costs

New York's attorney general urges the FCC to put a cap on how much cell phone service providers charge law enforcement to wiretap calls.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
Hoping to contain "skyrocketing" costs, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has asked the Federal Communications Commission to limit how much U.S. cell phone service providers charge law enforcement to wiretap calls.

After a period of spiking prices, Spitzer's office now spends a budget-busting $400,000 to $500,000 annually on wiretaps, while some smaller law enforcement agencies aren't using the basic crime-fighting tactic at all, according to a document Spitzer filed Monday with the FCC.

"Such a cost-recovery scheme (makes) intercepts prohibitively expensive for virtually all law enforcement agencies, and result in depriving law enforcement of an essential crime-fighting and anti-terror tool," he added.

Cell phone service providers have warned for more than a decade that wiretapping would be an expensive proposition, much more so than traditional phone networks. Furthermore, there are mechanisms in place that allow law enforcement agencies to dispute any wiretapping costs if they feel they are being overcharged, a representative for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), a cell phone industry trade group, said in response to Spitzer's request to the FCC.

According to Spitzer, a yearlong wiretap costs between $5,000 to $26,400, depending on which U.S. cell phone service provider is doing the setup and maintenance. The CTIA representative did not comment on figures Spitzer's office provided.

Spitzer's request is likely to be supported by the FBI, which has complained in the past of the high costs of wiretapping a cell phone call. An FBI representative had no immediate comment.

Spitzer's request was part of a larger FCC filing in support of making present-day wiretap rules apply to broadband providers. The FBI has said it asked for the changes because criminals are now favoring voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), cell phone push-to-talk and other unregulated communications services.