Drug Agents Can Access 26 Years of AT&T Phone Records, Program Reveals

Although the National Security Agency (NSA) has been in the hot seat the last few months for the revelations about its domestic surveillance, it has been revealed that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency searches phone records in a program that the New York Times said is “unmatched by other government programs.”

The Times report details the “Hemisphere Project,” a now seven-year partnership between the DEA and AT&T in which the government pays the phone company for records going all the way back to 1987.

Here’s more on how the Times describes the program, which it learned about through slides that peace activist Andrew Hendricks (emphasis added) gave to it:

Hemisphere covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch — not just those made by AT&T customers — and includes calls dating back 26 years, according to Hemisphere training slides bearing the logo of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Some four billion call records are added to the database every day, the slides say; technical specialists say a single call may generate more than one record. Unlike the N.S.A. data, the Hemisphere data includes information on the locations of callers.

[…]

“All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document,” one slide says. A search of the Nexis database found no reference to the program in news reports or Congressional hearings.

hemisphere program
A screenshot of one of the slides posted by Hendricks on Scribd. (Image via Scribd)

The Times reports Justice Department Spokesman Brian Fallon saying that access to the records are obtained through subpoenas, calling it a “bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations.” He explained that AT&T maintains the records but Hemisphere “simply streamlines the process of serving the subpoena to the phone company so law enforcement can quickly keep up with drug dealers when they switch phone numbers to try to avoid detection.”

Some have also called up how Hemisphere seems to have put phone company employees “inside government offices,” as ABC News put it:

For several years, representatives of a major phone company have been sitting beside federal agents in U.S. government offices across the country and passing along certain customer data, ABC News has learned.

[…]

Hemisphere, a “law enforcement sensitive” but not classified effort, puts AT&T contractors in HIDTA offices in Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta. It responds to requests from any of the other 25 HIDTA offices across the country.

Although such a relationship between the company and the government for such a large swath of data might sound excessive, some defend the program.

“Is this a massive change in the way the government operates? No,” Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman, told the Times, noting how phones are so easily disposable now. “Actually you could say that it’s a desperate effort by the government to catch up.”

Others cited potential constitutional issues with the program.

“(The) integration of government agents into the process means there are serious Fourth Amendment concerns,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer told the Times since the records were maintained by AT&T.

Read more about the program in the New York Times and on ABC News.

ABC linked to the documents published by Hendricks on Scribd.

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