February 22, 2019

Archives for November 2007

Comcast Podcast

Recently I took part in a Technology Liberation Front podcast about the Comcast controversy, with Adam Thierer, Jerry Brito, Richard Bennett, and James L. Gattuso. There’s now a (slightly edited) transcript online.

Economics of Eavesdropping For Pay

Following up on Andrew’s post about eavesdropping as a profit center for telecom companies, let’s take a quick look at the economics of eavesdropping for money. We’ll assume for the sake of argument that (1) telecom (i.e. transporting bits) is a commodity so competition forces providers to sell it essentially at cost, (2) the government wants to engage in certain eavesdropping and/or data mining that requires cooperation from telecom providers, (3) cooperation is optional for each provider, and (4) the government is willing to pay providers to cooperate.

A few caveats are in order. First, we’re not talking about situations, such as traditional law enforcement eavesdropping pursuant to a warrant, where the provider is compelled to cooperate. Providers will cooperate in those situations, as they should. We’re only talking about additional eavesdropping where the providers can choose whether to cooperate. Second, we don’t care whether the government pays for cooperation or threatens retaliation for non-cooperation – either way the provider ends up with more money if it cooperates. Finally, we’re assuming that the hypothetical surveillance or data mining program, and the providers’ participation in it, is lawful; otherwise the law will (eventually) stop it. With those caveats out of the way, let the analysis begin.

Suppose a provider charges each customer an amount P for telecom service. The provider makes minimal profit at price P, because by assumption telecom is a commodity. The government offers to pay the provider an amount E per customer if the provider allows surveillance. The provider has two choices: accept the payment and offer service with surveillance at a price of P-E, or refuse the payment and offer reduced-surveillance service at price P. A rational provider will do whatever it thinks its customers prefer: Would typical customers rather save E, or would they rather avoid surveillance?

In this scenario, surveillance isn’t actually a profit center for the provider – the payment, if accepted, gets passed on to customers as a price discount. The provider is just an intermediary; the customers are actually deciding.

But of course the government won’t allow each customer to make an individual decision whether to allow surveillance – then the bad guys could pay extra to avoid being watched. If enough customers prefer for whatever reason to avoid surveillance (at a cost of E), then some provider will emerge to serve them. So the government will have to set E large enough that the number of customers who would refuse the payment is not large enough to support even one provider. This implies a decent-sized value for E.

But there’s another possibility. Suppose a provider claims to be refusing the payment, but secretly accepts the payment and allows surveillance of its customers. If customers fall for the lie, then the provider can change P while pocketing the government payment E. Now surveillance is a profit center for the provider, as long as customers don’t catch on.

If customers know that producers might be lying, savvy customers will discount a producer’s claim to be refusing the payments. So the premium customers are willing to pay for (claims of) avoiding surveillance will be smaller, and government can buy more surveillance more cheaply.

The incentives here get pretty interesting. Government benefits by undermining providers’ credibility, as that lowers the price government has to pay for surveillance. Providers who are cooperating with the government want to undermine their fellow providers’ credibility, thereby making customers less likely to buy from surveillance-resisting providers. Providers who claim, truthfully or not, to be be refusing surveillance want to pick fights with the government, making it look less likely that they’re cooperating with the government on surveillance.

If government wants to use surveillance, why doesn’t it require providers to cooperate? That’s a political question that deserves a post of its own.