We all know how big corporations make their money, right? They offer a service or product to us, the consumer, and we pay for it with our hard-earned money. It's the cornerstone of capitalism, and why we no longer have to hunt, build fires, or whittle anything for ourselves. But in reality, the buying and selling of stuff only accounts for part of a corporation's revenue stream. Big businesses have all sorts of tricks and schemes to increase their profit shares, and almost all of them make them look like waxily mustachioed cartoon villains. Like how ...
AT&T Makes Bank By Selling Your Information To The Cops
The reputation of telecommunications behemoth AT&T is roughly as positive as a recommendation letter for a baby-shaking nanny. They're notorious for annoying customers with things like dropped calls, charging its poorest customers higher rates for slow-ass internet, and for generally not giving a single flat fuck. But they've managed to make at least one loyal friend through it all who doesn't care so much about their service issues or sluggish connections: the police. And their cop buddies only want one thing out of this relationship: information on you.
To the FBI.
Selling data to law enforcement has been quite the cash cow for AT&T, and this scheme has only recently come to light. Their surveillance-for-profit program, "Hemisphere," which sounds like a Bond villain came up with it, began as a partnership with the DEA to assist in counternarcotics investigations. That seems like a rather philanthropic thing to do, but it didn't take long for the company to figure out that selling customer data access to local agencies for taxpayer money was a much more profitable venture. So they began keeping detailed records (much longer than other service providers do) for exactly this purpose, with privacy concerns given about as much reasoned consideration as an impatient customer service rep might give an irate caller with an early termination fee complaint.
"And complaining about it has incurred a 'Go To Hell, Steve' surcharge. Wanna keep going?"
Sure, they're helping to crack important cases (up to and including murder), but that's only part of their shitty and expensive package deal -- which is so typically AT&T. Regional police and sheriffs have to pony up anywhere between $100,000 to a million bucks to get their hands on that sweet Hemisphere goodness. And to show how the costs can balloon, let's use Harris County, Texas as an example. Their first payment to AT&T in 2007 was about $78,000 for data access. They must have been thrilled with their purchase, too, because four years later, they happily forked over $940,000 for the same privilege. But it's all worth it to the cops, since buying information from AT&T means they don't need to bother with silly formalities like search warrants. All they have to present is an administrative subpoena, and that doesn't even require probable cause.