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  (Source: DEA)
Government says there's nothing to worry about as AT&T is storing everything

According to government documents published by The New York Times, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has access on metadata on virtually every long distance call passing through AT&T, Inc.'s (T) network, since 1987.  An estimated 4 billion records (one call sometimes generates multiple records) are estimated to be added to the federally funded AT&T databases a day; over a trillion records are estimated to be added yearly.  And possibly tens of trillions of records --- mostly from law-abiding Americans -- may reside in the agency's carefully maintained databases.

And you thought the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was bad.

I. Crafting the Nation's Most Ambitious Phone Record Mining Project

Dubbed the The Hemisphere Project, the project's roots stretch back to AT&T's decision to store call data records (CDRs) on all its long distance and international call starting in 1987.  

In 2007 -- under the leadership of President George W. Bush -- Hemisphere activated and began not only processing through AT&T's backlog of stored CDRs, but also recording data on all new calls passing through the phone network, including local calls.


Intended as a joint effort between local and federal authorities, the project's goal was to hunt down large-scale drug dealers by scouring the phone records of the nation, at the cost of pretty much everyone's privacy.  That cost -- and the government's gains -- have become much bigger as cell phone use boomed and metadata of call records became a virtual tracking database of where Americans went on a daily basis.

Indeed cell phones were a key motivation of the DEA's efforts; the program was designed as a tool to counter the use of cheap, disposable mobile phones (so called "burner" devices).  Such phones are often used by drug dealers, as depicted on TV drug dramas like Breaking Bad.

II. AT&T the Perfect Partner

"Big brother", aka the DEA, decided that AT&T was the most cost-effective route to watching the maximum number of Americans.  Not only does AT&T's own landline and cellular traffic pass through the carrier, but AT&T is also responsible for routing much of the remaining traffic through its nationwide network of cables and switches.  All of that third-party traffic would also be captured, with AT&T's kind assistance.

AT&T glass
AT&T proved eager to help the government for the right price. [Image Source: Reuters]

With AT&T's help, the DEA created a program of massive ubiquitous surveillance that even modern efforts have not matched in terms of storage term, according to the report.  The New York Times writes:

The scale and longevity of the data storage appears to be unmatched by other government programs, including the N.S.A.’s gathering of phone call logs under the Patriot Act. The N.S.A. stores the data for nearly all calls in the United States, including phone numbers and time and duration of calls, for five years.

The program has been active for the last half decade in the Atlanta, Georgia; Los Angeles, California; and Houston, Texas areas.  In 2012 Washington state was added to the program.  Requests in the program also reportedly were served to police departments in Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon.

And the government vowed to keep the program out of the public eye, writing:

All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document.  If there is no alternative to referencing a Hemisphere request, then the results should be referenced as information obtained from an AT&T subpoena.

Ultimately, the program was outed by Drew Hendricks, a peace activist in Port Hadlock, Wash., who followed up on his suspicions by filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 (5 U.S.C. § 552) lawsuits against various West Coast police agencies until one finally coughed up a 27-slide PowerPoint deck revealing details of Hemisphere.

III. Program May Explain AT&T's Rumored "Room 641a" in S.F., Calif. 

The program may have been nearly outed not long after its inception via a 2007-era whistleblower-report supporting a lawsuit filed against the federal government by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an expert witness suggested that the surveillance efforts were alive and well.  The witness in a court deposition wrote that the NSA had worked with AT&T, Inc. (T), the second largest wireless carrier in the country on a program to "vacuum up" phone traffic, internet traffic, emails, and more without warrant.

In that report, a retired 22-year AT&T technician, Mark Klein, recalls "that the NSA set up a system that vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T" and that "contrary to the government's depiction of its surveillance program as aimed at overseas terrorists . . . much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic."

The alleged interception took place at a shadowy site dubbed "Room 641a" at an AT&T facility in San Francisco, California.  The room allegedly used splitters to duplicate and record every single communication for the region over fiber optic lines.  The facility was reportedly just one of multiple such facilities across the country.  Mr. Klein said he believed that virtually every major telecom/internet service provider was involved in the scheme and that virtually every form of digital communication was being recorded, based on his own first-hand experience.

But ultimately the sweeping surveillance project would remain largely secret for the next decade until Mr. Hendricks' document score.

(AT&T refused to comment on the effort in detail.)

IV. Obama Administration -- Sacrificing Due Process is Worth it to Keep Drugs Off the Streets

Now out in the open, current President Barack Obama's administration is defending the effort, while acknowledging that its scope is unusually broad.  The Obama administration says that citizens should not be alarmed as AT&T -- not the government -- is storing the records that the government occasionally peruses.

The program highlights the use of "administrative subpoenas" -- subpoenas not from a judge or grand jury, but from a law enforcement agency.  While these kind of subpoenas -- orders to hand over records or face prosecution -- are secret and warrantless, the Obama administration insists that there's no harm in eliminating American's Constitutional right to due process, as long as it safeguards the nation against "criminals".

DEA Police Raid
Obama's DOJ says there's no harm in throwing away Constitutional freedoms to take the kinds drugs that President Obama used to use off the streets. [Image Source: AP]

Comments U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) spokesperson Brian Fallon:

[S]ubpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations.  [T]he records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government, [and 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.

(The DOJ is the parent agency of the DEA)

The DEA slide deck defends the program, saying it was crucial in multiple high profile busts.  Among them was a bust of a drug distribution ring in Washington who were using rotating prepaid phones to cover their tracks.  During the bust DEA agents seized 136 kilograms of cocaine (street value of around $10M USD) and $2.2M USD.

While the DEA was responsible for roughly half of requests in its "war on drugs", nearly half of the federal-level requests involved a different kind of "war" -- the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) "war on terror".  Past audits have consistently revealed that federal agents often break the law when given such overreaching privileges, but typically face no serious consequences for these illegal actions.

V. Is Privacy the Greatest Cost of the Nation's Eternal "War on Drugs"?

Despite these "successes" in the "war on drugs" Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), warns that the program raised "profound privacy concerns," despite the fact that AT&T was the one storing the searchable data.  Turning the government's line "there's nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hid" back on it, he comments, "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."

America incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world -- nearly 1 percent (~2 million) of the population -- at a projected cost of $80B USD or more [source] in 2010.  Of those incarcerated, 70 percent were imprisoned [source] for non-violent crimes, with nearly half of those serving prison time having lost their liberty due to non-violent drug offenses [source].  One in eight (roughly 1 out of every 800 Americans) are imprisoned for marijuana offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

Experts estimate that the U.S. loses almost $50B USD [source] in potential tax revenue by outlawing marijuana -- roughly $2T USD over the forty years of the war on drugs.  Combined with the net cost, that works out to roughly $3T USD -- enough to pay off a significant chunk of the U.S. national debt [source].

But for all the economic losses  in the war on drugs -- as with the "war on terror" -- the greatest loss of all may be the privacy of law abiding Americans.

Sources: DEA via The New York Times, The New York Times

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RE: Naive
By nsango on 9/3/2013 5:43:28 PM , Rating: 2
I'm only 40 and have been aware of this type of behavior for at least 15 years. Echelon started the show before i was even born.

I was surprised that the usual suspects haven't turned this into an Obama did it spin job. He traveled back to 2007 again to con the other party to implement the NSA stuff.

The prez is a time traveler.... impeech him!

You the people are not puppets! Wake up! Ask yourself which party or political entity was founded a few weeks after he was elected? Know your political system. Know who acts as obstaclesb for the sake of being obstacles.

Who decided to sacrifice the economy just to make the president look bad. If its not the debate over Syria. Sending it for debate is exposing those fake patriots putting hate over common sense. Captain insane in Syria needs to go...chem weapon make it obvious but those who said yes bomb iraq without proof cause W said so are now arguing against this action....see the pattern yet?! Not saying one party is bad just that there are elements in the opposition that claim to be patriots gut act like they don't care if you analyse their flip flopping.

Both parties have elements that put personal ahead of national interest.

RE: Naive
By Reclaimer77 on 9/3/2013 6:47:19 PM , Rating: 2
Who decided to sacrifice the economy just to make the president look bad.

Yeeeah, that's when you went off the deep end. Letting Obama spend money we don't have didn't "save" the economy, and never could.

Not saying one party is bad

And yet, you seem to be focusing on one and only one. Why even be coy about it? Just come out and say you think the Republican party is full of traitors, haters, and liars. I might not agree with you, but I would respect you.

I was surprised that the usual suspects haven't turned this into an Obama did it spin job.

Obama might not have created these programs, but we certainly CAN hold him accountable for not following up on his campaign promises to end them. Instead he expanded them, and gave them broad new powers. That's a fact, no dispute.

Captain insane in Syria needs to go...chem weapon make it obvious but those who said yes bomb iraq without proof cause W said so are now arguing against this action....see the pattern yet?!

I see a pattern alright. There's a lot of similarities between Iraq and Syria. Don't forget, Saddam used chemical weapons too, on the Kurds.

Both Saddam and Assad were supported by the US, hell they were our friends. Now, like Saddam, we've decided that Assad has to go.

And once we remove him from power, the result will be the same. Chaos.

What I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around, as many Americans, is that we're intending to attack a country on behalf of our enemy. At least in Iraq we were killing Al-Qaeda. Or "making" more Al-Qaeda, and killing them depending on what version you buy into. But Syria? The best thing we can do is wait it out.

So if those same people were slaughtered with gunfire or bombings, that's okay. But chemical weapons are where we draw the line? There's been FAR larger massacres ongoing that we've turned a blind eye to. Aren't there genocides happening right now, today, that the world just ignores?

Syria is Obama's Iraq, sorry to tell you.

RE: Naive
By M'n'M on 9/4/2013 12:35:57 AM , Rating: 2
And once we remove him from power, the result will be the same. Chaos.

You make other good points above but let me focus on this one. In the end, we will either do some Clintonian attack on baby-milk factories or do some hard hitting. If it's the latter then we will have played a part, tipped their civil war in favor of not-Assad. Who knows whether that will be a good thing or not. Hell, at this time even Egypt is up for grabs. One thing is for sure, if the US intervenes it will be blamed (and I mean that term) for what happens next. I see little upside for us and most likely another foreign policy and publicity disaster (think Lebanon and it's long civil war).

That CW is really the motivating factor here is naive. Nobody talked about spanking Saddam for his use of CW, which was on a much wider scale.

RE: Naive
By inperfectdarkness on 9/4/2013 2:56:10 AM , Rating: 2
"Baby Milk Factory"? You mean the one we hit during Desert Storm that had been camouflaged and protected with barbed-wire & SA-2 sites? The very same one that had the shoddily written, unprofessional-looking handheld signs declaring that it was a "Baby Milk Factory"?

Yeah, I'm sure Iraqi Propaganda had nothing to do with that whatsoever...

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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