Drug Agents Have Routine Access To AT&T Phone Records

The New York Times reported on Sunday that AT&T has been cooperating with the federal government to gain access to phone calls by AT&T customers and callers who pass through an AT&T switch. According to the report, the program stores calls dating back 26 years, with four billion call records being added to the database everyday.

The program, called the Hemisphere Project, began in 2007 with the intention to secretly spy on Americans who may be involved in drug crime. The government pays AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units across the country, where they sit with Drug Enforcement Administration agents and other officials and supply them with phone data. The report says that four AT&T employees are now working with officials in what is called the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.

Though the program is parallel to that of the N.S.A’s mass surveillance programs, there are stark differences. Unlike the N.S.A, Hemisphere’s database not only provides the numbers of the callers, but also their locations. Also, while the N.S.A stores the call records for PRISM and other programs, records collected by the Hemisphere Project are stored by AT&T, a fact that is touted by the Obama Administration because the records are not supplied without an “administrative subpoena,” which are issued by a federal agency like the D.E.A as opposed to a grand jury or a judge. Most importantly, the slides do include “success stories” of drug busts, whereas federal officials have yet to specify when their surveillance machine has benefited national security.

And there are already constitutional issues involved with the program. In an interview with the Times, Daniel Richman, a law professor at Columbia University said::

“Is this a massive change in the way the government operates? No,” said Mr. Richman. “Actually you could say that it’s a desperate effort by the government to catch up.”

But Mr. Richman said the program at least touched on an unresolved Fourth Amendment question: whether mere government possession of huge amounts of private data, rather than its actual use, may trespass on the amendment’s requirement that searches be “reasonable.” Even though the data resides with AT&T, the deep interest and involvement of the government in its storage may raise constitutional issues, he said.

And that raises an interesting point, but oddly enough, the leaked training slides, which can be seen here, were found activist Andrew Hendricks, who received the documents through an unrelated public records request to West Coast police departments. According to the Justice Department and law enforcement officials, the documents are not classified, but are considered “law enforcement sensitive.”

On a constitutional basis, the program is tricky. Even though the database is stored by AT&T, the government’s constant access to it may raise questions over whether it crosses the bounds of the Fourth Amendment. And since other phone companies like Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, according to the report,  have declined to comment on their involvement in similar programs, it brings up a lot of suspicion.

So now, there are two questions Americans need to debate. Are we willing to give up some privacy at least for the sake of law enforcement? At least in the Hemisphere Project, there is explicit evidence that there the proper legal techniques were used and worked to the desired end. However, there is also the issue of transparency. So why the secrecy? I highly doubt drug traffickers are stupid enough to believe that federal officials are not tracking them for the same reason terrorists do not seriously believe no one is tracking them. But that is another issue entirely. I do not mind if law enforcement is using my information, so long as they are using the proper legal channels, and so do the majority of Americans. And if the D.E.A and other officials are doing that while keeping quiet about the program and categorizing it as “law enforcement sensitive,” is there something more to it than what is known? Or do they think we are that stupid?

About Cristóbal Reyes

Cristóbal Reyes is a first-generation Chilean-American, a progressive political activist, and an aspiring political journalist. He studies Journalism and Political Science at the University of Central Florida and enjoys debating public policy and social issues.


One thought on “Drug Agents Have Routine Access To AT&T Phone Records

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