Senator Demands Release of AT&T ‘Hemisphere’ Surveillance Records

US Senator Ron Wyden wants the public to know about the details surrounding the long-running Hemisphere phone surveillance program. Wyden has written US Attorney General Merrick Garland a letter (PDF), asking him to release additional information about the project that apparently gives law enforcement agencies access to trillions of domestic phone records. In addition, he said that federal, state, local and Tribal law enforcement agencies have the ability to request “often-warrantless searches” from the project’s phone records that AT&T has been collecting since 1987.

The Hemisphere project first came to light in 2013 when The New York Times reported that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was paying AT&T to mine and keep records of its customers’ phone calls. Four billion new records are getting added to its database every day, and a federal or state law enforcement agency can request a query with a subpoena that they can issue themselves. Any law enforcement officer can send in a request to a single AT&T analyst based in Atlanta, Georgia, Wyden’s letter says, even if they’re seeking information that’s not related to any drug case. And apparently, they can use Hemisphere not just to identify a specific number, but to identify the target’s alternate numbers, to obtain location data and to look up the phone records of everyone who’s been in communication with the target.

The project has been defunded and refunded by the government several times over the past decade and was even, at one point, receiving federal funding under the name “Data Analytical Services (DAS).” Usually, projects funded by federal agencies would be subject to a mandatory Privacy Impact Assessment conducted by the Department of Justice, which means their records would be made public.

However, Hemisphere’s funding passes through a middleman, so it’s not required to go through a mandatory assessment. To be specific, ONDCP funds the program through the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which is a regional funding organization that distributes federal anti-drug law grants and is governed by a board made up of federal, state and local law enforcement officials. The DOJ had provided Wyden’s office with “dozens of pages of material” related to the project in 2019, but they had been labeled “Law Enforcement Sensitive” and cannot be released to the public.

“I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the materials provided by the DOJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress,” Wyden wrote in his letter. “While I have long defended the government’s need to protect classified sources and methods, this surveillance program is not classified and its existence has already been acknowledged by the DOJ in federal court. The public interest in an informed debate about government surveillance far outweighs the need to keep this information secret.”