Microsoft is charging the FBI hundreds of thousands dollars a month to view customer information, according to a recent story by the Daily Dot. The story relies on documents and invoices allegedly hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army and handed over to the Daily Dot for verification.
The documents appear to be emails exchanged between Microsoft's Global Criminal Compliance team and the FBI’s Digital Intercept Technology Unit. If they were not faked by the SEA, a group loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the invoices are proof that Microsoft charges the FBI as much as $200 per request for information. The most recent invoice in the hacked documents was from November 2013 and was for $281,000.
Neither Microsoft nor the FBI would confirm the validity of the documents. A Microsoft spokesperson did tell The Verge, though, that such transactions were no secret and billing the FBI for such requests was standard procedure.
"Regarding law enforcement requests, there’s nothing unusual here," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "Under U.S. law, companies can seek reimbursement for costs associated with complying with valid legal orders for customer data. We attempt to recover some of the costs associated with any such orders.”
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Christopher Soghoian, a technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, asserted that charging the fees to the FBI is a good thing because it creates a paper trail and documents the amount of requests submitted by law enforcement agencies. In 2010, Soghoian attacked Microsoft for not billing the Drug Enforcement Agency for similar requests.
Nate Cardozo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation agrees that the billing is a positive.
"Taxpayers should absolutely know how much money is going toward this," he said.
Cardozo believes the documents are real.
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"I don’t see any indication that they’re not real," he said. "If I was going to fake something like this, I would try to fake it up a lot more sensational than this.”
The most sensational part of the story, then, may be just how easy it was for the SEA to acquire the documents. Ashkan Soltani, who coauthored a Yale study on the costs of such programs, helped analyze the documents for the Daily Dot. He walked away shocked that the FBI was conducting the business over email.
"I thought it would be a more secure system,” he said.