Protesters rally outside the U.S. Capitol against the NSA's recently detailed surveillance programs June 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C. - 

The government's been getting data from phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon -- but not for free. “Virtually every company out there, technology company or telecommunications company charges the government, with the exception of Facebook -- which gives it away for free,” says Anne Flaherty, a technology policy reporter for the AP.

The law says that when law enforcement officers and security bureaus like the NSA need data from cell phone or Internet companies and “it puts the business out, [those companies] have a right to be compensated.” Flaherty says that since phone companies have had two decades of experience working with the law, “they’ve developed these really sophisticated fee lists.” Verizon, for example, charges $775 for the first month of wiretapping and $500 for each month after that. AT&T sets up its bill a bit differently, with a $325 “activation fee” per wiretap plus $10 a day to maintain it.


Flaherty says she asked the FBI how much they spent in total wiretapping “and they said we can’t give you a topline figure. We don’t know how much we spend on reimbursements because it’s divided up across the budget with every field office and every program.”

She says it seems unlikely that phone companies are making much, if any, profit from the federal government, even if the rates may seem high. But she also adds: there’s really no way to know.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal