from the privacy-trampling-as-a-business-model dept
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."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:
“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."
"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?