The Washington Post followed up the release of the super-secret NSA "Black Budget" on Thursday with another detail from the leaked intelligence budget: American companies who provide the agency access to their communications networks are often paid for their trouble. It's called the Corporate Partner Access Project, and carries a yearly budget of $278 million.
According to the Washington Post, the companies paid through the program could go way back with the agency, to the 1970's BLARNEY program. The budget doesn't name the companies in question, though the Post asked AT&T, Verizon, and other major telecomm companies for comment, all of whom declined. The revelation, the Post argues, could call into question whether some companies see a profit motive in complying with government requests for data. On the other hand, the payments could help deter overly broad requests from the government, if they know they'll be billed for it later. The payments also comply with the law, which calls for reimbursement for costs associated with intelligence requests. The Post explains that some companies, however, have learned to get as much profit as they can out of those deals:
Telecommunications companies generally do charge to comply with surveillance requests, which come from state, local and federal law enforcement officials as well as intelligence agencies.
Former telecommunications executive Paul Kouroupas, a security officer who worked at Global Crossing for 12 years, said that some companies welcome the revenue and enter into contracts in which the government makes higher payments than otherwise available to firms receiving reimbursement for complying with surveillance orders.
The costs are broken down by program: $65.96 million for BLARNEY, $94.74 million for FAIRVIEW, $46.04 million for STORMBREW and $9.41 million for OAKSTAR. The Post didn't determine why those figures don't add up to the full budgeted amount for the current fiscal year. In case you're curious about what the companies charge for access, the Post found a 2012 outline of costs from AT&T:
It charges $325 to activate surveillance of an account and also a daily rate of $5 or $10, depending on the information gathered. For providing the numbers that have accessed cell towers, meanwhile, AT&T charged $75 per tower.
Notably, the budget does not include any information on the PRISM program, which lets the government access the servers of several major technology companies.