Sprint Let the Government Spy on You, and Now It’s Getting Sued … by the Government

The government alleges in its lawsuit that Sprint overcharged on wiretapping expense reports sent to different federal agencies.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Sitting around worrying about privacy rights and the implications of government surveillance has clearly been distracting us from the issue of how much all of this snooping costs. Even spying is paid for by taxpayer dollars, so we should all want a good bargain. And the federal government is after fair pricing.

On Monday the government filed suit against Sprint and accused the company of overcharging federal agencies for wiretapping services. Under the Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act of 1994, telecommunications companies have to comply with government requests like those for wiretapping, but the companies are allowed to request reimbursement for “reasonable costs of compliance.”

Though a Sprint spokesperson said that the company denies the allegations, the government lawsuit asserts that Sprint overcharged for $21 million worth of services. “Sprint knowingly presented, or caused to be presented, false or fraudulent claims for payment or approval to the United States for reimbursement of its expenses in furnishing facilities and assistance in carrying out intercepts.” The suit suggests that the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and others were all over charged.

U.S. attorneys filed the suit in the Northern California District Court detailing some $10.5 million paid by the FBI, $21 million paid by the DEA, and more between January 2007 and July 2010. After that period Sprint apparently began requesting lower reimbursements.

Sprint told Ars Technica, “Under the law, the government is required to reimburse Sprint for its reasonable costs incurred when assisting law enforcement agencies with electronic surveillance. The invoices Sprint has submitted to the government fully comply with the law. We have fully cooperated with this investigation and intend to defend this matter vigorously.” It remains to be seen whether Sprint was actually overcharging government agencies, or whether the government simply had the gall to sue for a better deal while privacy discussions and disputes rage nationwide.