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AT&T’s Secret Surveillance Program Spies on American Customers Without Warrants and For Profit

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 15:46
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(Before It's News)

Here’s yet another reason to be concerned about the implications of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner: The Daily Beast has detailed a sophisticated surveillance program created by AT&T in 2007 that has been covertly providing U.S. law enforcement with consumers’ data. And guess who profits from “Project Hemisphere?”

That would be AT&T. The telecom giant created the program to readily access Americans’ information via its huge metadata database for surveillance purposes, according to The Daily Beast’s Kenneth Lipp. That data has been used, under careful orders to keep the program secret, to provide law enforcement officials with leads to use in cases ranging from drug and homicide investigations to Medicaid fraud. All of this, Lipp notes, is done without a warrant—and on the taxpayer’s dime.

READ: FCC Wants to Fine AT&T $100 Million for Throttling Data Speeds

Here’s more from Lipp’s account:

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.

These new revelations come as the company seeks to acquire Time Warner in the face of vocal opposition saying the deal would be bad for consumers. Donald Trump told supporters over the weekend he would kill the acquisition if he’s elected president; Hillary Clinton has urged regulators to scrutinize the deal.

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.

… 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.

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.

The connection between the mega-corporation and law enforcement is further shrouded by a practice called “parallel construction,” in which conventional means of surveilling suspects are employed to provide evidence to a case when in fact it was a tip-off from AT&T’s data stores that had supplied the means to start the investigation. 

Watchdog and legal organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have registered their concerns about Project Hemisphere’s constitutionality and requested more information through official channels, “with little success,” Lipp reported.

—Posted by Kasia Anderson

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