AT&T Project Hemisphere used to spy on citizens

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In newly reviewed documents, several parties looking into AT&T’s operation of Project Hemisphere have determined the communications carrier is undertaking surveillance on American citizens that far exceeds what the NSA did pursuant to the Patriot Act. On top of the potentially intrusive nature of the program, AT&T has turned it into a profit center so that they earn revenue in exchange for running the program and secretly providing information to American law enforcement agencies.

Project Hemisphere is used to search “trillions of call records and analyzes cellular data to determine where a target is located, with whom he speaks, and potentially why.” These searches can be performed without a warrant, although law enforcement agencies do have to promise not to disclose the existence or use of Hemisphere, even after an investigation using the data goes public.

Part of the success of the program for AT&T lies in the breadth and scope of the company’s infrastructure. AT&T owns more than three-quarters of all landline switches in the United States and controls the second largest network of wireless infrastructure and cellphone towers in the country. Perhaps realizing the opportunity that existed for all of this data, AT&T has been retaining cell tower data all the way back to 2008 compared to carriers like Verizon that only retains data for 12 months or Sprint that retains the records for 18 months.

Due to the secretive nature of Hemisphere compared to rights of those charged with a crime to know the evidence against them, law enforcement agencies end up preparing what Adam Schwartz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, describes as a false investigative narrative. The result is what is known as “parallel construction” in the legal community, meaning investigators and prosecutors will go about collecting evidence in a “routine” manner so as not to reveal the existence of the leads received via Hemisphere.

Law enforcement agencies that want to tap into Hemisphere have to pay from $100,000 to over $1,000,000 for access. In many cases the local government can get reimbursed for this through Federal government grants.

In response to groups like the EFF looking into Hemisphere, AT&T says there is “no special database” and the company just uses additional personnel to keep up with all of the requests that are coming in. They also point out that courts have already ruled that non-content data, like phone numbers or the date and time of calls, do not require a court order as customers should not have any expectation of privacy concerning that information.

ACLU technology policy analyst Christopher Soghoian says AT&T is going far beyond “cooperation” with law enforcement and is “mining the data of millions of innocent people.” Beyond that, the carrier has built a business around this data and their abilities to mine it to identify patterns or to do things like track a user between multiple, successive, discarded phone numbers.

This latest batch of information regarding Hemisphere surfaced thanks to the recent attempt to purchase Time-Warner Cable. However, groups like the ACLU have been trying to find out more for some time now. Not quite a year ago, a group of shareholders that became aware of the project filed a request for the company to go public with regard to Hemisphere and to clarify what AT&T is doing in order to prevent a negative impact on the stock value.

source: The Daily Beast


About the Author: Jeff Causey

Raised in North Carolina, Jeff Causey is a licensed CPA in North Carolina and possesses the CAPM credential from PMI. Jeff's past Android devices include an HTC EVO, a Samsung Note II, and an LG G3 along with a Samsung Galaxy Tablet 10.1. He currently uses a Motorola Moto X Pure Edition and (very rarely) a Nexus 7 (2013). Jeff used to have a pair of Google Glass and a Moto 360 Sport in his stable of gadgets. Unfortunately, his wife and kids have all drunk the Apple Kool-Aid and have i-devices. Life at home often includes demonstrations of the superiority of his Android based devices. In his free time, Jeff is active in his church, a local MINI Cooper car club, and his daughter's soccer club. Jeff is married, has three kids, and a golden retriever.


  • Paladin

    One more reason to stay away from AT&T.