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AT&T turns drug informant, handing feds 26 years of phone records

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Flickr rotary phone
Flickr rotary phone

After months of uproar following revelations that US intelligence agencies are compiling massive amounts of citizens’ telephone data, the New York Times reports that the DEA has had similar access to Americans' phone call data since 2007. Only instead of targeting terrorists, the DEA is pursuing domestic drug investigations. And instead of the NSA’s five-year ceiling on data retention, the DEA has data on phone calls dating back as much as 26 years.

"Never refer to Hemisphere in any official document."

The program is called the Hemisphere Project and it’s reportedly a partnership between federal and local law enforcement agencies and AT&T. According to the Times, the government pays for AT&T to place its employees inside the country’s drug investigation units so that agents can have quick access to telephone data. The administration's requests are satisfied with a simple administrative subpoena issued by the DEA instead of a warrant from a judge, raising concerns about legal oversight. The slides note that investigators "are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document."

Details of Hemisphere were revealed in a slide deck obtained by activist Drew Hendricks after a series of Freedom of Information Act requests. Started in 2007, it covers all phone traffic that passes through AT&T switches, not only those made by AT&T customers. Comparisons with the NSA’s phone metadata program are striking, but importantly, in the DEA's case the database stays in AT&T's hands, and is not directly searchable by government agents.

"It would be very hard to justify it to the public or the courts."

Putting telecom personnel at the immediate disposal of investigators is obviously a big asset when speed is a factor; the slides state that Hemisphere algorithms were helpful in tracking people between multiple disposable "burner" cellphones, enabling a major 2011 bust of the Hell’s Angels, for instance. But despite the project's usefulness, there are still big privacy implications. Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU stated that "the integration of government agents into the process means there are serious Fourth Amendment concerns," speculating that "one reason for the secrecy of the program is that it would be very hard to justify it to the public or the courts."