“An extreme willingness to help”
When investigators are trying to solve a crime, they sometimes request data from phone companies. Knowing when and where a criminal made a call can sometimes make or break a case, so when communications companies are presented with a warrant, they are generally willing to comply. Seems reasonable enough, right?
But AT&T has gone above and beyond their duty to comply, showing what the NSA called “an extreme willingness to help” federal agents access data, with or without a warrant. As a matter of fact, AT&T is profiting mightily by being “highly collaborative” with law enforcement agents.
Your every move, since 1987
Although the company won’t admit it outright, documents leaked last month by The Daily Best reveal AT&T is making millions, allowing law enforcement agencies to search a massive database of their records known as Hemisphere.
The data doesn’t include the content of text messages, and it doesn’t record phone calls. However, it does reveal who called who when, from where, and how long they talked. Data is collected from AT&T cell phones and landlines, and includes data from calls made to non-AT&T users as well.
These details can paint a vivid picture of a person’s daily activities, and can be used by law enforcement agencies to collect evidence for a case, even if they don’t have a warrant or probable cause.
While most companies periodically expunge their records (Verizon wipes its databases once per year, Sprint, every 18 months), AT&T has retained records since 1987. This means that AT&T has a massive database of information about innocent citizens that law enforcement agencies can search whenever they’d like – for a price.
Supporting the surveillance
For example, in 2011, Harris County, home of Houston, Texas, paid AT&T over $940,000 for access to Hemisphere. The federal government ultimately reimburses cities who use Hemisphere. In other words, we are under surveillance without our consent or due process of the law, and we are paying for it with our tax dollars.
It’s one thing to cooperate with a warrant. It’s quite another to cash in by running surveillance on innocent citizens – and then get them to pay for it.
Groups like the ACLU and Electronic Privacy Information Center question the constitutionality of Project Hemisphere, but have had difficulty acquiring documentation to build their case.
The recently leaked documents show that while AT&T doesn’t require a warrant to share data with law enforcement, they do require agents to agree not to remain hush-hush about their use of Hemisphere should the investigation go public. EFF is currently awaiting a judge’s ruling on the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents regarding Hemisphere from the Department of Justice.