[12/29/16] Telecommunications giant AT&T is selling access to customer data to local law enforcement in secret, new documents released on Monday reveal.
The program, called Hemisphere, was previously known only as a “partnership” between the company and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for the purposes of counter-narcotics operations.
It accesses the trove of telephone metadata available to AT&T, who control a large proportion of America’s landline and cellphone infrastructure. Unlike other providers, who delete their stored metadata after a certain time, AT&T keeps information like call time, duration, and even location data on file for years, with records dating back to 2008.
But according to internal company documents revealed Monday by the Daily Beast, Hemisphere is being sold to local police departments and used to investigate everything from murder to Medicaid fraud, costing US taxpayers millions of dollars every year even while riding roughshod over privacy concerns.
Access to Hemisphere costs local police between $100,000 and more than $1m a year, the documents reveal, and its use requires just an administrative subpoena – a much lower judicial bar than a search warrant because it does not need to be issued by a judge.
Until Monday, Hemisphere’s use was kept secret from the public – and even from judges, defense attorneys and lawmakers – by an agreement between law enforcement and AT&T which means police must not risk disclosing its use in public or even in court.
This means that police take leads from Hemisphere, but then construct cases around that lead so that the program can be protected from scrutiny, a practice known as “parallel construction”, according to the Beast.
The revelations come as AT&T prepares for its controversial $85bn acquisition of Time Warner, a deal which has been widely attacked as being bad for consumers, with both presidential candidates speaking out against the merger.