It Costs the Government Just 6.5 Cents an Hour to Spy on You

by DREW F. COHEN |  |  published on February 13, 2014

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist and activist at the center of the controversy over the National Security Agency’s spying operations, launched his new website Monday with a reported look at how the NSA uses tracking technology to hunt down terrorists abroad. He’s promising more revelations that will blow the lid off the agency’s activities. “We decided to launch now because we believe we have a vital and urgent obligation to this story, to these documents, and to the public,” he writes.

In this, he’s pushing on an open door. By now, most Americans agree that the NSA surveillance program, brought to light by leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, went “too far.” But what Greenwald and many other analysts often miss is that an overzealous security apparatus is not the driving reason behind government overreach. A lot of it has to do with dollars and cents: The price of surveillance technology has dropped so precipitously over the past two decades that once the agency overcame any moral objections, few practical considerations stood in its way of implementing a system that could monitor 315 million Americans every day. Indeed, one estimate tagged the NSA’s annual surveillance costs at $574 per taxpayer, a paltry 6.5 cents an hour.

If privacy law experts Kevin S. Bankston and Ashkan Soltani are correct, costs, once a significant check on government spying and police monitoring efforts, have become an afterthought. In a recent study published in the Yale Law Journal Online, Bankston and Soltani found that most technologies deployed for mass surveillance efforts by police departments (e.g., GPS devices and domestic drones) are on cost trajectories similar to the NSA spying program: As the number of subjects increases, the cost of keeping tabs on each target nears zero. Cheaper, more effective tracking devices have been a boon to cash-strapped police departments nationwide, largely to the dismay of civil liberty groups.

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