Monday, January 18, 2010

FOIA returns 91 invoices for Yahoo surveillance, 1 for Google

In June of 2009, I filed a Freedom of Information Act Requests with the US Marshals Service (USMS). That request asked for:
all records, invoices, memos and any other information detailing the amount of money paid by the U.S. Marshals Service to major providers of Internet based services to compensate them for the time and resources used in responding to subpoenas, warrants, pen registers, trap & trace requests, location information requests, and national security letters.

Essentially, I want to know how much the U.S. Marshals Service has paid for each type of surveillance and records request, and to whom. I also request any “price lists” detailing the standard prices for various forms of surveillance and records requests (per request, or hourly rates) for the various Internet companies.

At the very least, this request shall include documents relating to Skype (eBay), Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, MySpace, America Online, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Back in December, I published copies of letters sent to the USMS FOIA office by Verizon and Yahoo!, objecting to the disclosure of their surveillance price lists. Yahoo!'s formal objection, and its subsequent legal demand proved to be rather futile, as the company's law enforcement handbook made its way onto the Internet.

Those price lists were just one part of the FOIA request. I also sought copies of invoices for actual surveillance requests.

A few weeks ago, the US Marshals Service sent me 92 pages of invoices, covering three years worth of surveillance. Interestingly enough, while I asked for documents relating to every major ISP, the only documents they gave me related to Yahoo and Google. I have no idea why invoices for the other companies were not discovered and disclosed.

Those invoices can be downloaded here: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Analyzing the invoices

Of the 92 pages of invoices that I received, 91 were for Yahoo!, while I only one invoice is from Google.

The single Google invoice is for a pen register/trap and trace. Google provided an individual subscriber's information, recent session logs (including IP address and timestamps), and header information for emails sent/received by the account. For this information, Google charged $25.

Of the 91 Yahoo! invoices, 62 are for "requests for subscriber information", which probably means Yahoo provided the name, address and IP addresses used by a particular customer(s) to check their email account. Per 18 USC 2703(c)(2), this information can be provided with a simple administrative subpoena. The price for these requests range from $20 to $70.

Two other invoices were in response to "subpoenas". I am not sure what the difference is between these and requests for subscriber information.

A further 12 invoices were for "court orders for records", which I believe are 18 USC 2703 (d) orders, and which were likely used to obtain email in storage for more than 180 days (as well as for stored, sent emails and drafts).

12 invoices were for pen register and trap & trace requests (which can be used to get email headers), and three were for search warrants (which can be used to obtain email less than 180 days old).

Finally, as the handy spreadsheet provided by USMS makes clear, most of the invoices were not for round numbers, even though Yahoo's law enforcement manual states that subscriber records can be obtained for $20, and the contents of a subscriber account (including email) can be obtained for $30-$40. Instead, we see lots of invoices for $20.39, $20.41, $20.42, $30.41, $40.42, etc. That is, a round number followed by a ".39", ".41" or ".42".

Full credit goes to Julian Sanchez for figuring this out. By comparing the dates of the invoices to the prices listed, he determined that Yahoo! is charging the US Marshals Service for the cost of a stamp.

Each time the US Postal Service raised the cost of a first class stamp, the prices for Yahoo's requests went up by an identical number of pennies. Way to stick it to the man Yahoo!

I'm still waiting for the results of similar FOIAs filed with other parts of DOJ.

Disclaimer: The information presented here has been gathered and analyzed in my capacity as a graduate student at Indiana University. This data was gathered and analyzed on my own time, without using federal government resources. The opinions I express in my analysis are my own, and do not reflect the views of any other individual or organization with which I am affiliated.


Anonymous said...

I am not 100% sure, but I think I understand why so much invoices for Yahoo compare to Google - the thing is in Yahoo Finance board - it is more popular compare to Google Finance board and this is a place where stock market pickers gave their advices about stocks movements - of course some trying manipulate in bad faice and of course there are angry people who file complaints for investigation. Half a year ago I read a story that a director of a big American company wrote on Yahoo board (which is prohibited) and got caught.

Wes Winham said...

Do you have any insight as to why there's such a big discrepancy between yahoo and google?

Ian Eisenberg said...

Ian Eisenberg

Ian Eisenberg

Anonymous said...

yahoo isn't really sticking it to the man, since U.S. taxpayers pay for the U.S. marshal's service (and of course, any postal rate increases).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your work!