|Photo: Mike Mozart. Used under Creative Commons license.|
Police departments across the U.S. pay AT&T, the telecommunications giant, over one hundred thousand dollars a year for special access to telephone records of clients without first obtaining a warrant. The program is called 'Hemisphere' and the company required buyers to keep its existence secret.
The second largest telecommunications company in the U.S., AT&T traces its origins to Andrew Graham Bell, one of the inventors of the telephone. Today it owns 75 percent of the 'switches' that control U.S land lines and operates the second largest network of cell phone towers in the country.
New documents uncovered by the Daily Beast website show that in order to get access to Hemisphere, AT&T required police agencies to sign a contract that stated: "[T]he 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. The Government Agency shall make every effort to insure that information provided by the Contractor is non-attributable to AT&T if the data is provided to a third-party."
In order to abide by the newly revealed secrecy clause, police agencies engaged in a practice known as 'parallel construction' which meant that they used other means to provide the very same evidence in court, in order to cover up the original source. For example, the police often request a warrant after getting the initial data, in order to show how they had legally discovered the very same person's phone records.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco based activist group, calls this 'evidence laundering.' "When police hide their sources of evidence, the accused cannot challenge the quality or veracity of the governmentís investigation, or seek out favorable information still in the governmentís possession," writes Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation's civil liberties team. "Moreover, hiding evidence from individuals who are prosecuted as a result of such surveillance is antithetical to our fundamental right to an open criminal justice system."
Hemisphere was first revealed by Drew Hendricks, a peace activist in Port Hadlock, a small town in Washington state, who got the documents by submitting a public records request. In return he was sent a training document emblazoned with the logo of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. His slides were first published in a major New York Times story in September 2013.
The slides state that Hemisphere was created in 2007 to help law enforcement agencies mine the company's trove of an estimated four billion call records a day. All told the company is said to store trillions of records dating back as far as 1987, more than even the U.S. National Security Agency.
The new documents published by the Daily Beast show that Hemisphere is now being used at least 28 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Investigative Support Centers across the U.S.
AT&T says that the program was simply created to comply with the law. "Like other communications companies, if a government agency seeks customer call records through a subpoena, court order or other mandatory legal process, we are required by law to provide this non-content information, such as the phone numbers and the date and time of calls," Fletcher Cook, an AT&T spokesperson, told the Daily Beast.
But activists say the new information show that the company goes way beyond what the law requires. "Frankly, thatís offensive when they are mining the data of millions of innocent people, and really built a business and services around the needs of law enforcement," Christopher Soghoian, senior technology analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the website.
"This is just yet another example of why we canít trust AT&T and its promises," Craig Aaron, executive director of Free Press, told the Democracy Now radio show. "Theyíre taking their own customersí private information, selling it back
to the government for a hefty profit, while violating their privacy."
Schwartz says it is high time that the public is given a chance to review the program. "We must stop the police and their corporate suppliers from unilaterally and secretly deploying new surveillance technologies in the first place," he wrote, "Rather, the decision whether to adopt these sensitive tools should be made by elected officials, at open meetings, following ample opportunity for the general public to study the matter and have their voices heard."