AT&T Spies On Americans For Profit

In some unsettling news, AT&T was found to be colluding with law enforcement to spy on American citizens. If that wasn’t enough, the company apparently makes a profit from doing this.

Further Reading

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I, Spy

The Daily Beast reports that in 2013, officers working on a homicide case were trying to find a way to link a particular suspect to the crime. Even with DNA evidence, the law enforcement team just didn’t have enough to go on. But then they used Project Hemisphere.

Hemisphere is a secret project run by AT&T. It searches trillions of phone call records and analyzes cellular data. With this information, law enforcement can find the location of a target, the people he/she communicates with, and possibly even figure out why.

In 2013 The New York Times described Hemisphere as a “partnership” between AT&T and the government. The Justice Department said the program was “an essential, and prudently deployed, counter-narcotics tool.”

“an essential, and prudently deployed, counter-narcotics tool.”

But documentation by AT&T itself revealed that Hemisphere had far more uses besides drugs, such as homicide investigations and even Medicaid fraud. The project isn’t technically a partnership. Rather, it’s a product – one that AT&T developed, marketed and sold at the expense of taxpayers. Police and sheriff departments pay anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million for Hemisphere access.

Government agents don’t need a warrant to use this massive database of personal information. AT&T’s only requirement is that law enforcement must promise not to disclose Hemisphere if an investigation that makes use of it becomes public.

Although the US government requires telecommunications companies to share phone records, AT&T goes above and beyond with Hemisphere. Christopher Soghoian, a technology policy analyst at ACLU, said

“Companies have to give this data to law enforcement upon request, if they have it. AT&T doesn’t have to data-mine its database to help police come up with new numbers to investigate.”

I Spy For Profit

AT&T is in a unique position when it comes to customer data. The company owns more than 75% of U.S. landline switches. It also owns the second biggest wireless network infrastructure after Verizon. AT&T retains data from its cell towers going all the way back to July 2008. Far longer than other carriers. Verizon keeps records for a year, while Sprint keeps them for 18 months.

This isn’t even the first time that AT&T helped the government spy on its customers. In 2003, AT&T ordered Mark Klein – a technician for the company – to help the NSA install a bug into the carrier’s internet exchange point in San Francisco: Room 641A.

Image credit: Wired

Image credit: Wired

AT&T even invented a new programming language to efficiently mine its customer records for surveillance. In 2007 the carrier was criticized for handing documents over to the FBI. This was the same year that AT&T created Project Hemisphere.

By 2013 Hemisphere was deployed to three DEA High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Investigative Support Centers. Today, the project is used in at least 28 of these centers all around the country. Federal agents and local law enforcement staff these areas.

AT&T employees are the ones that mine Hemisphere for data on behalf of law enforcement clients. Law enforcement never directly access the data. In a 2014 statement, AT&T wants Hemisphere to be as secretive as possible:

“The 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 Law

According to American law, people charged with a crime have the right to know the evidence against them during the trial. But Adam Schwartz, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says AT&T’s statement means that the carrier leaves law enforcement no choice but to create a false story to cover up the fact that they used Hemisphere.

After AT&T gives officers a lead in an investigation using Hemisphere, it’s up to the investigators to use regular police work, like getting a court order for a wiretap or trailing a suspect. This is to come up with the same evidence that Hemisphere provided in order to prosecute. This process is called “parallel construction.”

Schwartz told The Daily Beast,

“This document here is striking. I’ve seen documents produced by the government regarding Hemisphere, but this is the first time I’ve seen an AT&T document which requires parallel construction in a service to government. It’s very troubling and not the way law enforcement should work in this country.”

The EFF, ACLU and Electronic Privacy Information Center have all expressed concern that Hemisphere surveillance is overly invasive and unconstitutional. Right now the EFF is waiting for a judge to rule on the Freedom of Information Act suit against the Department of Justice for Hemisphere documents.


Does this kind of behavior concern you? Does it even surprise you? Is this enough to make you leave AT&T? With AT&T’s monopoly on our communications is leaving them even feasable? Let us know what you think in the comments.