When it comes to tapping into U.S. telecommunications networks for surreptitious surveillance, the U.S. National Security Agency can't be accused of not paying its way.
The government agency pays "hundreds of millions of dollars a year" to U.S. telecommunications companies for the equipment and service required to intercept telephone calls, emails and instant messages of potential interest, according to a story in Thursday's Washington Post.
For the current fiscal year, the NSA will pay US$278 million for such access, and had paid $394 million in fiscal 2011, according to the Post.
Although previous news reports of NSA surveillance noted that the agency paid the costs for tapping into communications networks, the exact amount the agency has paid has not been cited before, according to the Post.
One of the largest of the 16 U.S. intelligence offices, the NSA is in charge of collecting and analyzing data to track foreign activities that could be harmful to the U.S. The agency is overseen by the U.S. Department of Defense's Director of National Intelligence.
The practice dates back at least to the 1970s. These data collection programs -- which have gone under names such as Blarney, Stormbrew, Fairview, and Oakstar -- are separate from the PRISM program first publicly unveiled by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. PRISM collects data from U.S. service providers such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google, whereas with these programs, the NSA collects potential data of interest as it moves across telecommunication gateways.
The article did not provide the names of any telecommunications companies that participate in the program, though notes they typically are paid for the costs of hardware and the labor to install and run the necessary equipment, as well as a certain percentage for profit.
The privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center had noted that it is troublesome that the NSA is paying so much to telecommunication companies given that their customers expect that their communications remain private.