AT&T Has Employees Embedded In The Gov't Providing Near Realtime Searches On Nearly Every Phone Call
from the forget-the-nsa dept
We’ve obviously been talking plenty about how the big telcos appear to provide tremendous amounts of data to the NSA — including, basically, call records on every single call ever made. We also discussed how the DEA appears to be getting secret info from the NSA and other intelligence agencies, via its Special Operations Division (SOD), and is then told to effectively launder where it got it’s tips from. However, over the weekend, the NY Times broke a huge story about a program called Hemisphere, set up by AT&T and the DEA, such that the DEA and a variety of other law enforcement agencies (including some at state level) have near real-time access to data on every single call that touches an AT&T switch (which goes way beyond cases where one of the parties on the call has an account with AT&T). And this database goes back to 1987 (unlike the NSA which claims to delete most data beyond five years, which may or may not be true). Also, unlike the NSA, this Hemisphere database includes location info.
Oh, and making it even crazier: the government is paying AT&T to have a bunch of AT&T employees embedded with the DEA so that they can respond to requests to search this database faster. The government insists this is no big deal (of course) in part because the “database” is not actually held by the feds, but rather by AT&T. But, really, does that distinction really matter when the AT&T employees who can query it are basically DEA employees — paid by the US government, working with DEA units? In order to query Hemisphere, the DEA and other agencies apparently just need an administrative subpoena, which is the equivalent of saying the DEA just needs to ask for it. There’s no review or oversight by a court or anything.
Furthermore, this seems to totally decimate the argument that the NSA and its defenders were making a few weeks ago, claiming that with the dragnet collection of metadata on all phone calls, it was necessary for the NSA to store this data, because it would take way too long to have the telcos do the searches for the government. They seem to have conveniently left out that there was already a program in place whereby law enforcement folks could walk over to the next cubicle and get the AT&T employee paid for by the government run a search for them with no real oversight.
Also, as with the SOD “leads” it appears that those in law enforcement making use of Hemisphere data are told to launder the use of the database. The PowerPoint presentation (which was revealed — perhaps accidentally — in response to a FOIA request) talks about “protecting the program,” which includes telling people who use the program “to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document.” It also explains how to “wall off” Hemisphere by using the information gleaned via the program to then seek a more regular subpoena for a specific carrier’s records. Basically, they use Hemisphere to find out key information and then tell law enforcement to use a different kind of subpoena to pretend the info came out of something different.
Furthermore, it appears they’ve been expanding the list of law enforcement people who can make use of Hemisphere. Washington state began allowing law enforcement in Washington to make use of Hemisphere, and they seem pretty excited about expanding such access to this massive database — which adds 4 billion call records every day. While the program is considered “unclassified,” the NY Times notes that it does not appear to have ever been mentioned publicly.
The tool is apparently quite good at locating people who are using burner phones and connecting various dots when people abandon one phone and pick up another. Obviously, you can see why such info might be valuable to law enforcement — especially the Drug Enforcement Agency — but there are serious questions about whether or not having access to all that data with so little oversight is actually legal. If you thought the NSA’s “metadata” database was big, this is much bigger. And almost no one even seemed to know it existed.