The Creepy Spy Program That Lets the Drug Enforcement Administration Look at Your Phone Records

The New York Times revealed Monday that the Drug Enforcement Administration has access to the entirety of telecom giant AT&T’s phone records.


The phone company, in return for payment by the government, has employees sit with government drug units and sift through company (not government) stored data reaching as far back as 1987.

According to a set of slides, which were categorized as “law enforcement sensitive” but not classified, the DEA’s “Hemisphere” program gives the agency access to a database that stores metadata on every one of the 4 billion daily phone calls that pass through AT&T’s network.

Unlike controversial NSA programs like PRISM, Hemisphere does not see the DEA itself hoarding communications data; AT&T stores the data. Nonetheless, with only an administrative subpoena (not a warrant) drug agents can home in on an individual’s communications data within an hour. As such Hemisphere is yet another example of how government agencies and corporations work in tandem to create and uphold the surveillance dragnets from which almost no communications within or going out of the U.S. escape.

A DoJ spokesperson told the times that the Hemisphere program enables swifter and more reliable tracking of drug dealers. The program “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,” he said. Civil libertarians, however, reject that granting a government agency access to the phone company’s entire database is therefore legally justified.

“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,” said the ACLU’s Jamil Jaffer.

As noted here last month, the DoJ announced that it would investigate a special, covert DEA unit that uses dragnet spying techniques, including wiretapping vast phone databases and using information from controversial NSA programs, to launch criminal — not national security — investigations. The unit presents as a clear example of mission creep, as national security spycraft is taken up for criminal and local law enforcement purposes.

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