New Docs Detail How AT&T Planned To Profit Massively By Helping Law Enforcement Spy On The Public

from the privacy-trampling-as-a-business-model dept

Back in 2013 the New York Times profiled just the latest in AT&T-related surveillance scandals, revealing the existence of “Project Hemisphere.” The original report detailed how Project Hemisphere is a joint program between AT&T and the DEA that provides a variety of federal and state law enforcement agencies with nearly real-time access to logs and location data on nearly every single call that touches the AT&T network. Unlike AT&T’s NSA-related scandals, in many ways this system is much larger than anything covered previously. It’s also much older, with the project having roots as far back as 1987.

Making the revelations even more notable was the fact that the report indicated that AT&T had employees embedded with the DEA to help expedite access to this data. This difficulty in trying to determine where the government begins and AT&T ends isn’t new; AT&T has long helped the FBI tap dance around privacy and surveillance law, often having its own employees actively working as government intelligence analysts.

But a new report released this week by The Daily Beast indicates that Project Hemisphere is even bigger than originally claimed in the New York Times report. While the Times suggested this project originated as a “partnership” specifically tailored for drug enforcement operations, the outlet obtained AT&T documents (pdf) on Project Hemisphere that make it clear that the project was designed by AT&T from the ground up as a significant money making opportunity. The program also has a notably wider scope than originally reported:

“AT&T?s own documentation?reported here by The Daily Beast for the first time?shows Hemisphere was used far beyond the war on drugs to include everything from investigations of homicide to Medicaid fraud. Hemisphere isn?t a ?partnership? but rather a product AT&T developed, marketed, and sold at a cost of millions of dollars per year to taxpayers. No warrant is required to make use of the company?s massive trove of data, according to AT&T documents, only a promise from law enforcement to not disclose Hemisphere if an investigation using it becomes public.

While phone companies like AT&T are in some instances legally obligated to hand over customer data to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, AT&T has a nasty habit of going well, well beyond this, frequently with only a fleeting regard to existing law. Repercussions for this behavior have been minimal to non-existent, with AT&T frequently scoring massive government telecom contracts, and the government itself happy to retroactively change the law whenever its telco partners get into the slightest bit of hot water.

The leaked documents noted that AT&T was notably sensitive to information on this program seeing the light of day, AT&T informing its government BFFs that data collected from Hemisphere should not be used in “any judicial or administrative proceedings unless there is no other available and admissible probative evidence.” Since those charged with a crime have the legal right to see the evidence against them, this often results in the government concocting a false investigative narrative to obfuscate the use of programs like hemisphere.

It likely goes without saying, but EFF attorney Adam Schwartz makes it abundantly clear that’s not how functioning democracies and legal systems are supposed to work:

“Once AT&T provides a lead through Hemisphere, then investigators use routine police work, like getting a court order for a wiretap or following a suspect around, to provide the same evidence for the purpose of prosecution. This is known as ?parallel construction.”

?This document here is striking,? Schwartz told The Daily Beast. ?I?ve seen documents produced by the government regarding Hemisphere, but this is the first time I?ve seen an AT&T document which requires parallel construction in a service to government. It?s very troubling and not the way law enforcement should work in this country.”

Unsurprisingly, efforts by the EFF and others to obtain more detail on Hemisphere using the FOIA have proven fruitless. The only public discourse on the matter is violently superficial, with AT&T, as you might expect, denying it’s doing anything remotely wrong:

“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,? AT&T?s statement said.

Right, except that’s hard to claim when the documents make it clear that AT&T built Hemisphere from the ground up with the express intent of making money off of the government’s mammoth, consistently-law-skirting information dragnet. This latest report indicates that law enforcement agencies pay anywhere from $100,000 to upward of $1 million a year or more for access to Hemisphere, netting AT&T a cozy profit for helping government tap dance over, under and around privacy and surveillance law.

Which brings us to this week’s news that AT&T intends to spend another $85 billion to acquire Time Warner. This is the same company that not only builds business models based on trampling the legal rights of American citizens, but pioneered new and exciting ways of charging its broadband customers a steep premium for “privacy” on the other end of the equation. What could possibly, possibly go wrong as AT&T attempts to become larger and more powerful than ever before?

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Comments on “New Docs Detail How AT&T Planned To Profit Massively By Helping Law Enforcement Spy On The Public”

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23 Comments
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Is there where the idea for stingrays came from?
We can do it of all the land lines, why not all the cells… and we can get it cheaper.

The only casualty was the rights we let our citizens think they have, and they are all bad people anyways so no one will care if they find out.

Its time for 40 days of rain to flush the filth from Washington, this downward spiral has been going much longer and much deeper than anyone ever imagined. We need to push them back from taking the final plunge into the abyss.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

After the flood subsided, God promised that next time it would be by fire and not by water. 🙂 And the symbol of that is the rainbow.

In the case of AT&T, government, and many other parties that are literally creating the Sci Fi dystopia of our nightmares, I don’t know if fire would be enough. Maybe eternal fire so that they don’t rise from the ashes.

DannyB (profile) says:

VPNs may become the new ISPs

Having a modem was a requirement in the dial up days.

Now, having a VPN may be a basic necessity when signing up with any ISP. Instead of trusting your ISP, who once was considered worth trusting, you’ll vest that trust in the VPN provider. Or use TOR over your VPN. 🙂 To keep your VPN from knowing the contents of your connections.

Next after that, having several VPNs, and (not yet written) software that randomly directs your connections over one of the several different VPNs.

VPNs through other VPNs?

Who knows what else you’ll need after that. Some kind of meta-network built on top of everything I just described.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

I imagine a future when we've had enough of this.

Corporate-police collusion will be presumed, casting reasonable doubt on all evidence (until proven otherwise) and law enforcement officers are presumed lying until they can back it up with factual evidence (e.g. video recordings).

So an anonymous phone call tip becomes useless, since that’s obviously a cover for a corporate informant providing illegal data.

Everyone is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and everyone is supposed to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure. Now the opposite is true and we’re filling our prisons up with innocent convicts. Our law enforcement agents have become racketeers where they just pick and choose people to book, without investigation, without evidence. If a corporate officer wants to fire someone with prejudice, inform on him to the police as if he was a drug runner, too.

So much for the United States 1.0

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: I imagine a future when we've had enough of this.

Space is really going to give humanity freedom again.

Not in the first century of colonization.

It’ll be like living on submarines. People living in close quarters, in an otherwise dangerous environment, highly dependent on everyone else, requiring a strict command structure. Little ability to up and move if the neighbors are anti-social, and anti-social could get you killed. They’ll dream of the freedom of living on Earth.

Once colonies are large and established enough to get over that, the political structures won’t look much different from what we have now.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: I imagine a future when we've had enough of this.

Corporate-police collusion will be presumed

Everyone is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,

It’s not collusion.

MERGER ANNOUNCEMENT: AT&T to acquire law enforcement.

Today, AT&T announced its intention to acquire all law enforcement for an undisclosed amount.

To make future law enforcement easier and more flexible, guilt will be presumed instead of innocence. The accused will bear the burden of proving innocence.

Now the opposite is true and we’re filling our
prisons up with innocent convicts.

We have For Profit prisons.

This is in addition to Secret:
courts, warrants, laws, court orders, arrests, trials, convictions, and secret prisons. But for profit prisons(!).

The education system needs to produce the correct balance of graduates who are destined to populate the prisons and others who will be the worker drones to pay for the for profit prisons.

This will be a necessary change to the economy in case the military industrial complex revenue is ever in danger.

(Remember the lesson of Snowden. No matter how bad you think it might be, reality is that it is already worse!)

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Slaves to a corrupt government

Obviously. The question is how corrupt can it go and stay intact? We’re already learning how to not get shot by cops in high school. Have we stopped teaching our children anyone can be president?

How about we start teaching them that not only are corporations people, but they are more privileged citizens than human beings.

We should start teaching our sons that the way to get ahead is to brew meth, and our daughters that being a porn star while you’re young is the less-lucrative, more legal option.

You’re certainly not going to make it working hard as a store clerk or a waitress.

(In the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell, most girls wanted to be a wage prostitute when they grew up, since there was a lot of upward mobility if you were pretty. Today, Russian porn is famous for being extra-saucy the way that Swedish porn was in the 70s and 80s.)

Anonymous Coward says:

The sheeple aren't ATT customers

The govt (including the FCC) and advertisers are.

But why pick on ATT? Google (don’t be evil — be double-secret evil) and Facebook have also sold your souls.

Google/Alphabet’s billionaire Eric Schmidt apparently wants to be Hillary’s Secretary of Defense — i.e., the guy in charge of the NSA/CIA/DIA/etc.

Facebook’s billionaire Sheryl Sandberg apparently wants to be Secretary of the Treasury

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