AT&T Is Spying on Americans for Profit, New Documents Reveal
Kenneth Lipp10.25.16 5:13 AM ET
The telecom giant is doing NSA-style work for law enforcement—without a warrant—and earning millions of dollars a year from taxpayers.
Special cooperation with the government to conduct surveillance dates back to at least 2003, when AT&T ordered technician Mark Klein to help the National Security Agency install a bug directly into its main San Francisco internet exchange point, Room 641A. The company invented a programming language to mine its own records for surveillance, and in 2007 came under fire for handing these mined records over to the FBI. That same year Hemisphere was born.
Hemisphere is a secretive program run by AT&T that searches trillions of call records and analyzes cellular data to determine where a target is located, with whom he speaks, and potentially why.
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 telecommunications companies are legally obligated to hand over records, AT&T appears to have gone much further to make the enterprise profitable, according to ACLU technology policy analyst Christopher Soghoian.
“Companies have to give this data to law enforcement upon request, if they have it. AT&T doesn’t have to data-mine its database to help police come up with new numbers to investigate,” Soghoian said.
AT&T has a unique power to extract information from its metadata because it retains so much of it. The company owns more than three-quarters of U.S. landline switches, and the second largest share of the nation’s wireless infrastructure and cellphone towers, behind Verizon. AT&T retains its cell tower data going back to July 2008, longer than other providers. Verizon holds records for a year and Sprint for 18 months, according to a 2011 retention schedule obtained by The Daily Beast.
By 2013, it was deployed to three DEA High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Investigative Support Centers, according to the Times. Today, Hemisphere is used in at least 28 of these intelligence centers across the country, documents show. The centers are staffed by federal agents as well as local law enforcement; one center is the Los Angeles Regional Criminal Information Clearinghouse, where Merritt’s number was sent for analysis.
Analysis is done by AT&T employees on behalf of law enforcement clients through these intelligence centers, but performed at another location in the area. At no point does law enforcement directly access AT&T’s data.
A statement of work from 2014 shows how hush-hush AT&T wants to keep Hemisphere.
“The Government agency agrees not to use the data as evidence in any judicial or administrative proceedings unless there is no other available and admissible probative evidence,” it says.
Sheriff and police departments pay from $100,000 to upward of $1 million a year or more for Hemisphere access. Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, made its inaugural payment to AT&T of $77,924 in 2007, according to a contract reviewed by The Daily Beast. Four years later, the county’s Hemisphere bill had increased more than tenfold to $940,000.
“Did you see that movie Field of Dreams?” Soghoian asked. “It’s like that line, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Once a company creates a huge surveillance apparatus like this and provides it to law enforcement, they then have to provide it whenever the government asks. They’ve developed this massive program and of course they’re going to sell it to as many people as possible.”
AT&T documents state law enforcement doesn’t need a search warrant to use Hemisphere, just an administrative subpoena, which does not require probable cause. The DEA was granted administrative subpoena power in 1970.