A White House-backed program in partnership with telecom giant AT&T collects phone call records of Americans and provides law enforcement access to the databases.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has raised “serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program.”
4 Billion New Records a DayThe program’s existence was revealed by the New York Times in a 2013 article. AT&T has kept call records going back to 1987, adding 4 billion new records daily, the article said.
The senator’s letter points out that Hemisphere receives federal funds via an “obscure grant program” that doesn’t require a mandatory federal privacy review.
If the funds were routed directly through a federal agency, Hemisphere would have been subject to a Privacy Impact Assessment conducted by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Privacy and Civil Liberties. The findings would be made public.
Instead, money for Hemisphere is acquired by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) through the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a funding organization administered by ONDCP.
Requests Reviewed by One AnalystOfficials at the Houston HIDTA told Sen. Wyden’s staff that all Hemisphere requests are sent to a single AT&T analyst in Atlanta, Georgia, according to the letter.
Any law enforcement officer working for the federal, state, local, or tribal law enforcement agencies can request the analyst to run a query. The search requests need not be related to drug-related investigations.
“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,” Mr. Wyden wrote.
“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.”
The program received funding from the White House beginning in 2009. After the press exposure in 2013, funding for the program was suspended by the Obama administration. However, it was revamped under a new name—Data Analytics Services (DAS)—and secured another source of federal funding.
ONDCP resumed funding of DAS in 2017 under the Trump administration. In 2021, the funding was paused once more under the Biden administration, only to be resumed a year later in 2022.
- Dropped and additional phone identification: AT&T analysts use sophisticated algorithms to run an abandoned number through a database to identify a suspect’s potential new phone number.
- Location identification: Analysts can provide investigators with access to temporary roaming location data of individuals when they make or receive calls.
- International phone number identification: The program gives information on call records made by international phone numbers that place calls through an AT&T network or roam on the network. As such, investigators need not contact foreign law enforcement to obtain such details.
Free From ScrutinyAccording to data provided by ONDCP to Mr. Wyden, the agency provided Hemisphere with $6.19 million dollars in funding between 2009 and 2022.
The difference is that while these programs were subject to oversight from Congress, DAS is free from such scrutiny.
The bill also aims to ensure that “foreigners aren’t targeted as a pretext for spying on the Americans with whom they are communicating.”
The Epoch Times reached out to the White House for comment.