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Cops Just Love Secret Metadata Collection

by Michael Dean Thompson

Policing agencies throughout the country continue to find new ways to secretly surveil Americans. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has discovered yet another way the cops are working in the dark to scrutinize the behaviors of every single American. The program was called Hemisphere but is now called the Data Analytical Service (“DAS”). AT&T, which has held onto phone call metadata dating as far back as 1987, voluntarily provides access to the data and even offers training to any cop who wants to know more about a specific number.

AT&T has long been the nation’s telephony backbone as the largest of the tier 1 providers. As a result, it is likely the vast majority of calls spanning multiple providers cross through their systems. Trillions of phone records are available for the curious cops’ secret surveillance, according to Senator Wyden, “with 4 billion new records being added every day.” So, they possess phone records for pretty much anyone who has ever used a phone in the U.S. Senator Wyden’s letter to U.S. Attorney General Garland says, “The scale of the data available to and routinely searched for the benefit of law enforcement under the Hemisphere Project is stunning in its scope.”

DAS is yet another warrantless metadata program that slurps up the data of innocents across the country in order to capture the very few. This program drills down into call records to follow a phone to every number called and then to every number each of those called. The technique allows them to perform what they call a “chain analysis,” a form of network node mapping that spotlights important members of a group, or cell, even if that person receives very few direct calls. Among the data collected and disseminated is caller location, despite the fact that the courts ruled in 2018 that collecting long-term location information requires a warrant. Furthermore, the cops are able to issue dragnets by sweeping up hosts of numbers in what they call a “community of interest.”

The entire program has been designed to avoid oversight, taking advantage of numerous loopholes. Because the program runs under the auspices of The White House, for example, it is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests and is exempt from providing assessments of its privacy impacts. Cops who use DAS have been explicitly trained not to mention the program in official records so that it remains undiscoverable. Funding for the project is provided through the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in order to further remove congressional oversight. Nevertheless, the request for Hemisphere data does not need to be in support of a drug-related case. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act likewise may have been rendered helpless because the program focuses on the AT&T backbone.

Senator Wyden has joined with other members of Congress in both houses to introduce the Government Surveillance Reform Act. The act attempts to patch many of these and other holes that have allowed the government’s use of tools and programs to spy on law abiding Americans by being artfully designed to slip through the cracks in the convoluted maze of regulation and oversight.   



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