Future Tense

Why Does the U.K.’s New Internet Surveillance Plan Cost Nearly $4 Billion?

How much does it cost to monitor every communication flowing through a country?

Last week, the British government published its controversial Communications Data Bill—or “snoopers’ charter,” as it has been widely dubbed—which would force U.K. telecoms firms to store records about activity on social network sites, webmail, internet phone calls (like Skype), and online gaming for up to a year.

The legislation, which could involve fitting “black-box” probes within the communications infrastructure to make data available in near real time, has been attacked by civil liberties groups that have drawn comparisons with mass surveillance systems used by authoritarian rulers in places like Belarus, China, and Iran.

Many of the technical details about the plan remain unknown at this early stage, but the huge cost of the program itself is highly revealing. The new surveillance infrastructure would cost up to £2.5 billion ($3.9 billion) over the next decade, according to the Financial Times.

It’s difficult to find any other monitoring schemes that come close to $3.9 billion, which hints at the true size of the British project. An Internet surveillance programme the Canadian government wants to legislate, very similar in every way to the U.K.’s, is reportedly priced at about $160 million for the first four years. A surveillance scheme in India that would “monitor all web traffic passing through Internet service providers in the country” is also predicted to cost $160 million.

Other surveillance systems, including those enabling total interception of everything from voice calls to emails and text messages, are equally affordable in comparison.

Last year it was revealed Syria had cut a $17.9 million deal with a series of telecoms firms that would give the Assad regime the “power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country.” A monitoring system for “strategic nationwide interception” of Internet communications was purchased by Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya for little over $25 million. And Iran paid $130.6 million as part of a contract for a mass monitoring system that can reportedly “locate users, intercept their voice, text messaging … emails, chat conversations or web access.”

Even the cost of setting up China’s “Great Firewall”—the most famous of all Internet monitoring systems—is reported to have cost less than $1 billion. And one of the biggest spy centers being built in the western world, the National Security Agency’s Utah Data Center, is billed at $2 billion, a little more than half of the estimated cost establishing the U.K. program.

Why does the cost of the U.K.’s surveillance regime seem so disproportionately high? One reason is undoubtedly because it has agreed to pay telecoms firms to upgrade their existing infrastructure so they are able to accumulate the desired data. Another factor might be that the scale of the nationwide monitoring system is far greater the government has so far been willing to publicly acknowledge. Or perhaps—and it wouldn’t be for the first time—the brains behind the initiative have just dramatically failed to shop around.