By now the fact that federal agencies have been dragnetting massive amounts of digital communications made by Americans without warrants is-like, ermahgerd, so-15-minutes-ago? But for the obeisant (it’s great, the government is keeping us safe) and the jaded (it’s wrong but you can’t fight city hall), you may want to “rethink possible.” Spying and data collection are rampant in the private sector and it is done for profit.
The New York Times now reports that AT&T has indeed raised the bar and has provided “your world- delivered” through a program called Project Hemisphere, which is described as:
Hemisphere covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch — not just those made by AT&T customers — and includes calls dating back 26 years, according to Hemisphere training slides bearing the logo of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Some four billion call records are added to the database every day, the slides say; technical specialists say a single call may generate more than one record. Unlike the N.S.A. data, the Hemisphere data includes information on the locations of callers.
Remember those subpoena requests that you sent out for phone records. Remember the response you got which stated the company only had phone records for six months, or a year, or two years. Well, we now know if that is the answer you got from AT&T it was a flat out lie. You got punk’d.
From what we know of Project Hemisphere, AT&T has phone records as far back as 26 years. The Project Hemisphere powerpoint document which was leaked to The New York Times pertained to DEA activities in Southern California and didn’t address the amount of money AT&T is making off the program. However, one Texas journalist blogged some hard dollar figures coming out of the Houston branch of the operation:
Local Texas agencies, at least in Houston and likely elsewhere, also accessed the Operation Hemisphere database. Chris Soghoian tweeted out several; links with references to local agencies potentially using this “Hemisphere” database. One Harris County Commissioners Court agenda dated January 25, 2013 (pdf) included item 12(f) approving as a sole source, no-bid contract, “AT&T in the amount of $373,795 sole source for Operation Hemisphere investigative services for the Sheriff’s Department for the period ending June 30, 2013.” And on a February 4, 2011 agenda item 10(a) under “19(c) Purchasing,” included, “Request for approval of sole source (a) AT&T sole source for Operation Hemisphere, formerly Hudson Hawk, investigative services for the Sheriff’s Department in the amount of $924,500.”
Another agenda dated Jan. 20, 2012 included item 19(c)3 which read, “Accept High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Grant funds in the additional amount of $666,667 from the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the Houston Intelligence Support Center – Operation Hemisphere Initiative.” And what is the Houston Intelligence Support Center? Best I can tell, it’s the Houston Regional Intelligence Service Center, one of many “fusion centers” that cropped up post 9/11. How are they utilizing the Hemisphere database? With whom are they sharing the information? Your guess is as good as mine. What we do know is that, including the fusion center money (which came from a federal grant), those three payments alone total $1,964,962 that the Harris County commissioners court spent on this one surveillance tool between 2011 and 2013 (so far). That’s a big sum any way you look at it.
An even more detailed breakdown of Harris County, Texas spending on Project Hemisphere can be found here.
The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer tweeted an interesting question wondering how many times At&T moved to quash a Hemisphere subpoena. That’s a good question. However, I’d like to know how many times AT&T responded to a civil subpoena for phone records stating it no longer maintained the records sought. I’m sure that AT&T’s position is that it had to tell this noble lie in order to maintain secrecy on behalf of law enforcement and national security agencies. Be that as it may, the cat is now out of the bag. There is no longer a secret to keep. We know the program exists and we know that there are 26 years of phone records ready to be accessed at the touch of a button. So the next time you get stonewalled on a request for three-year-old phone records from AT&T, don’t take no for an answer. Your tax dollars paid for Project Hemisphere and there is no reason to deny a legitimate request for those records under a civil subpoena.