The Drug Enforcement Agency can comb through roughly 26 years of phone records in their pursuit of big time drug dealers through a newly revealed partnership with AT&T to provide the law enforcement agency with real time access to an unprecedented amount of user information.
According to reports from The New York Times and ABC News, the DEA has been paying AT&T since 2007 to work directly with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program to offer access to every call that goes through the communications company's switchboard. The Hemisphere Project, an unclassified but "law enforcement sensitive" program, places an AT&T employee in four DEA offices across the country -- two in Los Angeles, one in Houston, one in Atlanta -- to assist federal and local officials working together to track down suspects. It gives the DEA access to records including phone numbers, time and duration of calls and the location where the call was made dating back 26 years -- all the way back to 1987. "Some four billion call records are added to the database every day," the Times explains, per training slides for AT&T employees that were released through FOIA requests.
The program is primarily used to track drug trafficking suspects who routinely switch phones or phone numbers to avoid detection from law enforcement. Drug dealers will use "burner phones" to make a small batch of calls to lieutenants in their operation before discarding the phone before police can track their behavior. The Hemisphere Project tries to work around that. ABC News does the best job explaining how law enforcement officials use the records to track major suspects:
Essentially, the program uses a suspect’s past phone calls to identify associates, and then uses those associates’ recent call patterns to identify the suspect’s new number. Subpoenas are obtained to proceed with each step.
The DEA's project gives them access to more user information than the phone records collected by the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. Their archives only go back five years because of restrictions imposed by the Patriot Act. But the Hemisphere Project doesn't collect and store data at DEA offices. The AT&T rep works to retrieve and deliver data "in real time," law enforcement sources told ABC News, from archives stored by the communications company. "Hemisphere results can be returned via email within an hour of the subpoenaed request," Hemisphere training materials say. "Hemisphere data contains roaming information that can identify the city and state at the time of the call."
The Justice Department issued this statement to The New York Times:
Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement that “subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations.”
Mr. Fallon said that “the records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government,” and that Hemisphere “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.”
Two legal experts contacted by the Times had differing opinions on the programs legality. "Is this a massive change in the way the government operates? No," said Columbia law professor Daniel C. Richman. Richman acknowledged there are questions to be asked about the ease with which law enforcement can access the data. "I’d speculate that one reason for the secrecy of the program is that it would be very hard to justify it to the public or the courts," deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union Jameel Jaffer said.
The craziest part about this story -- besides the massive, questionable partnership between a major law enforcement program and a telecommunications company -- is how the program came to light. Andrew Hendricks, a Washington peace activist, obtained a Powerpoint presentation explaining the program through a Freedom of Information Act request to West Coast police departments while he was investigating something completely unrelated. He gave them to the Times, and also uploaded them to the Internet for the rest of the world to see. You can read through the slides below:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.