Earlier this week, the New York Times revealed the existence of an phone database operation bigger than the NSA's recently publicized phone records.
The Hemisphere Project is a partnership between federal and local police and the telecommunications giant, AT&T. Basically, the government pays AT&T to distribute a few of its employees in drug-fighting units to work with DEA agents and supply them with records that go back as far as 1987. That is 26 years' worth of phone records, with four billion being added every day. These phone records do not only track those lines of AT&T costumers, but any call that passes through an AT&T switch. While the government agents are so closely integrated that they work in the same office building, the phone database technically still remains in the hands of AT&T, and is therefore “constitutional.”
Adding to the enormous sum of the War on Drugs, the Hemisphere Project was paid for by the DEA and the White House drug policy office. The project is primarily dedicated to tracking otherwise difficult suspects, particularly those who use prepaid or disposable phones. Using the extensive database, detectives are able to track people who are using “burner” phones by looking at calling habits. For instance, for a large-scale drug dealer, their phone might change but their calling history does not. They will still call certain people and numbers just as frequently, and these patterns are what detectives look for to trace multiple phones to individuals.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this privacy invasion is the absence of a judicial system. At no point will a court determine the validity of the project because even those convicted are kept in the dark about the project, and therefore can never defend themselves in court by questioning the legality of this type of investigation. Because of the program, sifting through a vast number of phone records, which might include your own, in order to catch criminals, happens without the supervision of a judge. Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesman, said that Hemisphere “simply streamlines the process of serving the subpoena to the phone company so law enforcement can quickly keep up with drug dealers when they switch phone numbers to try to avoid detection.” However, if there is not anything illegal about the program, why are they so sneaky and secretive about it?
When it comes to the Hemisphere Project, mum is the word. If agents need to use any of the information they obtained through Hemisphere, they are encouraged to employ “parallel construction,” meaning to get the same information from other sources in order to keep the existence of the Hemisphere Project a secret. Even in a slideshow introducing the program, agents are instructed to “never refer to Hemisphere in any official document.”
Clearly, when it comes to breaching privacy, it seems that the U.S. government can dish it out but cannot take it.