Forget the NSA. Meet AT&T’s Secret Hemisphere Project

While the NSA may be good to sell a few t-shirts, it’s small-time.  If you want somebody who knows how to really intrude into your privacy, meet AT&T.  Can you hear me now?  From the New York Times:

The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T that has not previously been reported, involves an extremely close association between the government and the telecommunications giant.

The government pays AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units around the country. Those employees sit alongside Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local detectives and supply them with the phone data from as far back as 1987.

Two things that stand out, if you haven’t already noticed. First, this isn’t something the government has cobbled together to cover the last few years under a post 9/11 terrorist rationalization, but goes back to 1987. Second, it doesn’t purport to be about saving the nation from death and destruction by those who would terrorize us, but is just a basic law enforcement effort to maintain access to every telephone communication ever made by anyone.

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.

Could this be for real, or a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream?  Well, let’s check the powerpoint!


The slides were given to The New York Times by Drew Hendricks, a peace activist in Port Hadlock, Wash. He said he had received the PowerPoint presentation, which is unclassified but marked “Law enforcement sensitive,” in response to a series of public information requests to West Coast police agencies.

Let that be a lesson to the feds. Share stuff with locals and you never know how well they keep your secrets.

Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement that “subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations.”

Mr. Fallon said that “the records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government,” and that 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.”

The government’s effort to justify what appears to be the most massive intrusion yet into the privacy of Americans is that the database is kept by a private corporation, AT&T, rather than the government, as the NSA’s database is.  Of course, the fact that AT&T has allowed itself (chosen?) to become inextricably intertwined with the government’s heroic crime-fighting efforts puts the lie to the argument.  Once a private party locks arms with the government, it’s as much a part of the government as the government itself. AT&T is just an agent of the feds, sharing its people along with our private information.

Nor is there much comfort in the claim that the government issues subpoenas for the information whenever it wants something.  Under situations like this, a subpoena is just a fancy word for a requisition, a piece of paper that tells AT&T what it wants, with no one to challenge it or pass judgment on the propriety of the request.

Is this too far? Is this the last straw?  Not according to former prosecutor and current Columbia lawprof Daniel Richman:

Daniel C. Richman, a law professor at Columbia, said he sympathized with the government’s argument that it needs such voluminous data to catch criminals in the era of disposable cellphones.

“Is this a massive change in the way the government operates? No,” said Mr. Richman, who worked as a federal drug prosecutor in Manhattan in the early 1990s. “Actually you could say that it’s a desperate effort by the government to catch up.”

Despite Richman’s obvious sympathy with the government’s fear that someone, somewhere, might get away with something, even Richman concedes that there might be an itty, bitty problem, as this 26 year accumulation of personal information

at least touched on an unresolved Fourth Amendment question: whether mere government possession of huge amounts of private data, rather than its actual use, may trespass on the amendment’s requirement that searches be “reasonable.”

Is there anyone still wondering whether there can be any remaining privacy in the digital age with the continued existence of the third party doctrine?  The better question now might be whether the death of this doctrine at the hands of the Supreme Court, assuming it was within the realm of possibility, would change the government’s intrusion into every bit of information, data, metadata, that exists in any database, public or private.

Will this be the end of the revelations?  What about Verizon? What about all the other companies that accumulate data and store it in their servers with a glowing privacy policy that proclaims they would never give away our personal information (unless someone like the government asked nicely), making us feel comfy and secure in the knowledge that our lives remain our own?

But remember, in 1987, the digital world was just beginning, just starting, and we had almost no appreciation of what the future of intrusion into our personal privacy would bring.  Yet, AT&T was thoughtful enough to hang on to all that old, stale data, just in case the government might one day ask for it.  What else is sitting in servers somewhere? What is happening in the other Hemispheres?  It’s no longer crazy to expect that there are more programs we are unaware of. In fact, it’s reached the point where its pretty crazy to think there aren’t.



2 thoughts on “Forget the NSA. Meet AT&T’s Secret Hemisphere Project

  1. jill mcmahon

    TIA. Just renamed and outsourced.

    If I were a hacker, I would be trying to break into these data storehouses.

  2. Pingback: NYT: government has access to phone records back to 1987 - Overlawyered

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