When it comes to call info sweeps, nothing beats the NSA, one might think, but they would be wrong. Back in 2013, the New York Times discovered that the DEA - you know, the department in charge of the "war on drugs" - appears to have logged billions of AT&T call records, in fact a 26-year amount, and counting. Dubbed Project Hemisphere, the undertaking lifted off in 2007, and has apparently never looked back.
We are talking here about actual AT&T personnel sitting in DEA's offices, helping with the data collection and assisting with, say, tracking those "burner" phones drug dealers use, says the Sunday Times. The report was based on a 27-slide PowerPoint presentation by the DEA, meant for law enforcement officials. The government is apparently chipping in for the expenses connected with all that snooping that goes back to phone records from 1987, and includes every call that has ever passed through the AT&T network, including from other carriers.
Fast forward to today, and, what was dismissed at the time as an "essential
" and "prudently-deployed counter-narcotics tool
" seems to be a much wider dragnet than the general public gives it credit for. A document, obtained by the Daily Beast, shows that AT&T can provide a lead through Hemisphere, and law enforcement can go ahead even without a warrant based on that lead, creating what is called "parallel construction" afterwards, like obtaining a court order on a wiretap or to follow someone. You know, all the stuff that you saw in The Wire, but instead of slaving over having to wake a judge at 3am, the cops can now issue a simple subpoena without the need to construct a probable cause, or exhaust all other avenues.
This is a pretty dangerous precedent, and AT&T has the incentive to keep the scheme going. After all, municipalities are paying well for using Hemisphere, from $100 thousand to more than a million a year, so why ruin a good thing with extra privacy precautions. The money then get reimbursed through that same police militarization program that supplies Iraq insurgency level equipment to local police departments, so ultimately it's the taxpayer covering the costs on their own court order-less snooping.
The AT&T statement on the matter is pretty boilerplate: "Like other communications companies, if a government agency seeks customer call records through a subpoena, court order or other mandatory legal process, we are required by law to provide this non-content information, such as the phone numbers and the date and time of calls."
According to ACLU technology policy analyst Christopher Soghoian, however, the issue is that "оnce a company creates a huge surveillance apparatus like this and provides it to law enforcement, they then have to provide it whenever the government asks. They’ve developed this massive program and of course they’re going to sell it to as many people as possible." There you have it.