Dave Maass, EFF:
In late 2013, right as the world was already reeling from the Snowden revelations, the New York Times revealed that AT&T gives federal and local drug enforcement investigators access to a phone records surveillance system that dwarfs the NSA’s. Through this program, code-named Hemisphere, police tap into trillions of phone records going back decades.
It’s been five long years of privacy scandals, and Hemisphere has faded somewhat from the headlines since it was first revealed. That was long enough for officials to rebrand the program “Data Analytical Services,” making it even less likely to draw scrutiny or stick in memory. Nevertheless, Hemisphere remains a prime example of how private corporations and the government team up to help themselves to our digital lives, and the lengths they will go to to cover their tracks.
AT&T embeds employees with police agencies in at least three hubs: Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta. These employees run the software that searches and analyzes AT&T’s massive phone database. Cops (usually working drug cases) from around the country contact their regional hub to get the records, and federal officials can query Hemisphere without first getting permission from a judge. The system was reportedly especially useful for tracking people when they switched phones.
As shocking as this program was when it was first revealed, the secrecy surrounding it was just as outrageous. The media reported that law enforcement agencies are instructed to bend over backwards to keep Hemisphere from the light of day. That includes leaving the details of its use out of arrest reports and court proceedings. Through a technique known as “parallel construction,” after using Hemisphere, cops devise a second, more conventional way to obtain the information, and put that reverse-engineered method down on paper. The result is that law enforcement lies about the origins of its investigative methods, which also prevents individuals they target from knowing about, much less challenging, the surveillance.
Our lawsuit resulted in the release of most of the document (and many others), which revealed an indignant law enforcement official going to lengths to describe how the Hemisphere program is legal and not like the NSA’s call records program that was also under fire at the time. The author argued that the idea that law enforcement “collectively did something wrong” was “furthest from the truth.”
However, the official actually succeeded in raising even more alarms by referring to it as a “Super Search Engine” and a “Google on Steroids.”
One of the best ways to understand how a secret government program operates is to obtain the blank worksheets that law enforcement officers must fill out to get data. Sure enough, the request form we obtained through our lawsuit indicates that the Hemisphere program anticipated that investigators might want information on a large number of phone numbers, but didn’t expect them to provide information about any legal process taken in advance of the request.
The records we obtained revealed even more about the lengths law enforcement and AT&T underwent to keep the program secret.
For example, here’s an attorney from AT&T expressing the company’s desire as far back as 2007 to keep the use of Hemisphere—or even the information gathered through Hemisphere—out of court filings.
Six years later, the DEA embraced the secrecy, going so far to keep it out of the DEA’s equivalent of its internal police reports, DEA Form 6, referred to as “6s” in the email below.
If you believe that Hemisphere may have been used in your case, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.