The New York Times has released a copy of a PowerPoint presentation from the Drug Czar’s office detailing the routine access to trillions of private citizens’ phone records, far exceeding previous revelations of government using anti - terrorism spying to go after domestic drug crimes. Dubbed “Hemisphere,” the presentation marked “law enforcement sensitive” explains how telecommunications giant AT&T regularly supplies the DEA with phone records from as far back as 1987, and has been doing so secretly for at least six years.
The database maintained by AT&T contains not just phone records of its customers. It contains records of any call from any provider that has passed through AT&T’s networks. This private database far surpasses the phone metadata being collected by the government’s National Security Agency (NSA). It logs some four billion electronic call detail records (called CDRs) per day. These CDRs track the numbers being called, the time and date of the calls, the duration of the calls, and, unlike the NSA’s database, the location of the callers. Under the USA PATRIOT ACT, the NSA is only allowed to keep its phone metadata for five years, but AT&T, as a non-government entity, can keep this data as long as it likes.
The presentation explains how administrative subpoenas -- paperwork filed by the DEA that does not require the approval of a judge or jury -- can return queries from the AT&T database within an hour that are up to date to the hour of the request and as far back as 26 years. In its six years of existence, Hemisphere has responded to 4,400 requests for over 11,200 individual phone numbers -- an average of two requests on five phone numbers per day.
Hemisphere goes beyond just supplying the DEA with AT&T’s data. According to the New York Times report, the government pays AT&T to embed four of its employees within DEA “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas” -- two in Atlanta, one in Houston and one in Los Angeles -- to assist with Hemisphere records requests.
DEA works hard to keep this program in the shadows. One slide refers to “walling off” any trace of Hemisphere’s involvement by recreating the data trail in the carrier’s records, a type of “parallel construction” technique revealed in the previous DEA/NSA spying revelations. “Hemisphere can be easily protected” the slide explains, and another slide warns users of Hemisphere to “never refer to Hemisphere in any official document.”
The New York Times spoke to Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesperson, for comment on the Hemisphere program. Fallon downplayed the enormity of Hemisphere, stating that it “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.” HIGH TIMES wonders if it’s so darn simple, why the need for “walling off” and “never referring” to it?