US govt pays AT&T to let cops search Americans' phone records – 'usually' without a warrant

At least get a court order before mining Hemisphere Project data, says Senator

A senator has complained that American law enforcement agencies snoop on US citizens and residents, seemingly without regard for the privacy provisions of the Fourth Amendment, under a secret program called the Hemisphere Project that allows police to conduct searches of trillions of phone records.

According to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), these searches "usually" happen without warrants. And after more than a decade of keeping people — lawmakers included — in the dark about Hemisphere, Wyden wants the Justice Department to reveal information about what he called a "long-running dragnet surveillance program."

"I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the materials provided by the DoJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress," Wyden wrote in a letter [PDF] to US Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Under Hemisphere, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) pays telco AT&T to provide all federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies with the ability to request searches of trillions of domestic phone records dating back to at least 1987, plus the four billion call records added every day.

We are required by law to comply with subpoenas, warrants and court orders from government and law enforcement

AT&T declined to answer any specific questions about Hemisphere, but a spokesperson told The Register: "To be clear, any information referred to in Senator Wyden's letter would be compelled by subpoena, warrant, or court order."

"We defer to the Justice Department, to whom Senator Wyden's letter is addressed, for comment," the AT&T spokesperson said. "Like all companies, we are required by law to comply with subpoenas, warrants and court orders from government and law enforcement agencies."

According to Wyden, federal and state law enforcement agencies can request a Hemisphere search with a subpoena — but many law enforcement agencies can issue these themselves. Additionally, any law enforcement agency across the country can request access to these searches, and they aren't limited to drug-related investigations, according to the Oregon senator.

Hemisphere first came to light in a 2013 New York Times report that alleged the "scale and longevity of the data storage appears to be unmatched by other government programs, including the NSA's gathering of phone call logs under the Patriot Act."

It's not classified, but that doesn't mean the Feds want you to see it

Privacy advocates including the Electronic Frontier Foundations have filed Freedom of Information Act and state-level public records lawsuits to learn more about the secret snooping program.

Few have made a dent: it appears that the Feds are doing everything they can to keep Hemisphere secret.

Although the program and its documents are not classified, the Justice Department has marked them as "Law Enforcement Sensitive," meaning their disclosure could hurt ongoing investigations. This designation also prevents the documents from being publicly released.

Senator Wyden wants the designation removed.

Additionally, Hemisphere is not subject to a federal Privacy Impact Assessment due to its funding structure, it's claimed. The White House doesn't directly pay AT&T - instead the ONDCP provides a grant to the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which is a partnership between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. And this partnership, in turn, pays AT&T to operate this surveillance scheme.

In Wyden's letter, he quotes a law enforcement official who described Hemisphere as "AT&T's Super Search Engine" and "Google on Steroids." He also cites ONDCP slides and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) emails disclosing that AT&T searches records kept by its wholesale division, which carries communications on behalf of other telecom companies and their customers.

Another ONDCP document purportedly states that Hemisphere "can be used to identify alternate numbers used by a target, obtain location data and 'two levels of call detail records for one target number'.” That provision means Hemisphere searches can pull in phone records of everyone who communicated with the target of an investigation.

In other words: there's some serious snooping happening.

This letter to DOJ comes as Wyden and other lawmakers from both parties, in the US Senate and House of Representatives, have introduced the Government Surveillance Reform Act, which would, among other things, require an independent court order before allowing surveillance of Americans' phone records. ®

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