Bending the Fourth Amendment for fun and profit

Government authorities serving Comcast, the largest cable operator and second largest ISP in the United States, with wiretap requests under federal wiretap statutes are required to pay $1,000 per request, with a service fee of $750 each month after, says a recently leaked copy of the Comcast Cable Law Enforcement Handbook (PDF).

The document, which is presumably given to law enforcement personnel involved in investigations, notes several other interesting policies regarding Comcast’s compliance: in one example, FBI agents are required to hand-deliver National Security Letters to Comcast’s headquarters, located in Philadelphia.

The handbook also describes strict rules for positively identifying wiretap targets before a wiretap can be installed, and includes specific instructions and examples on verifying a suspect’s IP address and other information.  Law enforcement authorities can generally do this within 180 days the date in question, as DHCP logs – Comcast subscribers are not given static IPs, and instead are frequently assigned dynamic IPs via DHCP – expire and are purged within six months.

Some have expressed concern over the Comcast’s policy of charging – and most likely, profiting – from what many consider to be a violation of people’s right to privacy. “If there are … 100 or 200 $1,000 payments for [wiretap requests] over the course of a year, I think those would be indistinguishable from the larger revenue stream,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

According to the handbook, the $1,000 and $750 service fee is required for the “deployment of an intercept device,” and is only waived in investigations regarding “child exploitation.”

Overall, the handbook reveals that Comcast is attempting to comply closely with the letter of the law, which contains strict rules regarding positive identification and due process.

“Comcast will assist law enforcement agencies in their investigations while protecting subscriber privacy as required by law and applicable privacy policies,” says the handbook, but notes that “attention must be paid to the various court proceedings in which the legal status of such requests is at issue.”

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