Drug Officials Pay AT&T to Spy On America, Because Some Work is Too Dirty For the Government

For six years, PRISM was far removed from the American public eye, until Glenn Greenwald broke his story on PRISM and the NSA in June 2013. It took three more months for the public to find out about yet another government surveillance program, this one involving the Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Like PRISM, the Hemisphere Project began in 2007 in "high intensity drug trafficking" areas, according to the PowerPoint presentation slides obtained by the New York Times.

The project involves the government paying AT&T to staff its units with DEA agents. Hemisphere collects data from "every call that passes through an AT&T switch," which amounts to "4 billion call detail records" on a daily basis. The program has access to "long distance and international" data dating back 26 years. With this information, the government can acquire phone records of anyone who has ever made a call to or from an AT&T phone since 1987.

The slides, updated with information from March 2013, state that the collected data can only be obtained "in response to federal, state, and local administrative/grand jury subpoenas." The call records will otherwise be stored by the carrier, AT&T, as if to provide any assurance.

The Hemisphere Project highlights a confusing and contentious questions surrounding privacy: Since when are companies, which are profit-driven by nature, able to be entrusted with people's private information?

One can rightly assume that the program, which is funded by the Department of Justice, includes payments to AT&T. One may also infer that AT&T participates in Hemisphere to make money.

Should Americans be outraged that they are being spied upon? Or should they be thankful that drug dealers and other criminals are getting captured?

As Americans are increasingly dependent on cell phones, Hemisphere's "success stories" of tracking drug dealers, robbers, and a murder suspect are not surprising. In fact, they are expected. According to May 2013's Pew Internet Project's research, 91% of Americans have a cell phone. That people living with an income below the poverty level also possess cell phones highlights how ubiquitous and necessary cell phones have become. American's mobile device activities reveal much personal information. 

Cell phones have the potential to become portable telescreens of the 21st century. This is why Americans need to speak up and draw the line, however fine it may be. "Success stories," however, should not be what drive or excuse any surveillance programs. There is a reason telescreens aren't installed in every American's home.

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Eunji Kim

Interested in race and gender issues and Asian politics. Recent grad from Rutgers/Douglass Residential College. Former intern at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and The Nation.

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