Feds Can Track Your Calls But Not Their Own

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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Many federal agencies don’t know how many mobile devices they have, how often they’re used or how much they cost taxpayers monthly, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO report became public as Congress debated whether or not to renew a National Security Agency bulk data collection program in which the federal government tracks virtually every call to and from millions of private cell phones and landlines across the country. A federal court declared the program unconstitutional earlier this month.

GAO reviewed 15 departments and agencies and found that only the Department of Defense tracks device usage, but even the Pentagon and nine other agencies lack a complete inventory of devices they have. For example, NASA’s inventory does not count about 1,500 mobile devices.

Agencies don’t track their devices for “overuse, under-use or zero use, which are key indicators of potential inefficient use,” GAO said.

The accountability office report is only the most recent illustration of a much bigger problem of federal departments and agencies not knowing what they have or how much they spend.

Some officials told GAO investigators that it “was not necessary to monitor device usage” because they had plans such as unlimited data. The accountability office responded that tracking usage would allow agencies to determine if a bigger or smaller plan would save more money.

“They may be paying for unused mobile devices or using inefficient service plans,” GAO inspectors wrote.

Most of the reviewed agencies tracked at least a few aspects of their cell phone usage, but three “did not have any documented procedures for monitoring mobile device usage,” GAO said.

The Department of Commerce didn’t know how much the plans cost for nearly half of its mobile devices.

Even though the Defense Department was the only agency with a comprehensive process to track its spending, it hasn’t updated its data since November 2012 and lacks information for a quarter of its mobile devices’ plans.

Pentagon officials argued to investigators “maintaining an inventory comes at considerable expense and effort.”

The Department of Homeland Security reported information on devices used at its headquarters, but didn’t report their respective plans, meaning investigators couldn’t track if the devices consistently went over or under their contract terms.

Also, the rates and plans varied widely between agencies. The monthly plans ranged anywhere from $21 per month to $121.57 per month across the 15 departments examined by GAO. In fact, there was a $53 difference between the highest and lowest rates for unlimited plans.

“The variance in rates paid for the same services shows the potential to reduce costs,” GAO said. “The wide range of rates agencies reported paying reinforces the need for effective ongoing oversight of mobile device spending.”

An executive order issued in November 2011 directed agencies to create plans to reduce administrative costs for a range of products, including cell phones.

The government spent around $1.2 billion annually on an estimated 1.5 million mobile devices, and the Office of Management and Budget estimated that agencies could save $388 million “by consolidating or eliminating mobile device contracts.”

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