A Hemisphere of (YOUR) Information

Category: Privacy

If you thought the NSA had the largest collection of citizens’ digital communications, think again. That honor belongs to AT&T, which has been archiving the metadata of all phone and email traffic that passes through its global network since at least 2007. Read on to learn what this metadata can be used for, and who it's being sold to…

What is the Hemisphere Program?

Metadata is the "envelope information" of emails and phone calls, but not the actual content of those messages. Even so, it is possible to analyze the mountain of information that AT&T has collected for the past 10 years (some say the data collection dates as far back as 1987) and infer the identity, current and past locations, and activities of a suspect. The company sells such analyses to law enforcement under a highly secretive program called “Hemisphere.”

AT&T has a long history of aiding government surveillance in ways that go above and beyond the law’s requirements for such cooperation. In 2006, whistleblower Mark Klein revealed hat he was ordered to install wiretapping equipment in a secret room at AT&T’s San Francisco network operations center. From 2001 to 2011, that gear siphoned to the NSA all the email metadata - including sender and recipient addresses, and IP addresses - that passed through AT&T’s San Francisco NOC, including traffic that originated on other providers’ networks.

AT&T Hemisphere Program

Where other service providers require a court order before turning customers’ data over to law enforcement, all Hemisphere requires is an administrative subpoena issued by a law enforcement agency, a heap of your tax money, and a promise that law enforcement will never reveal the existence of Hemisphere.

Prosecutors have abandoned criminal cases in order to avoid being forced to reveal their use of Hemisphere. But more often, law enforcement fabricates a new investigation that leads to the same evidence revealed by Hemisphere, employing search warrants and legal surveillance techniques.

County sheriffs and municipal police pay $100,000 to $1 million annually for Hemisphere services. The federal government reimburses local agencies for Hemisphere expenses under a Dept. of Homeland Security grant program. So you can imagine how lucrative this program must be for AT&T.

Originally developed to help the Drug Enforcement Agency nab dealers who swap phones frequently, Hemisphere’s market has been expanded to include everything from homicide to Medicaid fraud investigations. The unmatched size of AT&T’s database enables the company to find patterns that can link one device to another and to their user.

"Objection Overruled!"

The Obama administration has said that the program raises no privacy concern. But privacy advocates object to AT&T’s trolling through many customers’ metadata in search of leads to criminal suspects that the company can sell profitably to law enforcement. “They say they only cooperate with law enforcement as required, and frankly, that’s offensive when they are mining the data of millions of innocent people, and really built a business and services around the needs of law enforcement,” said ACLU technology analyst Christopher Soghoian.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is struggling to obtain information about Hemisphere. The EFF’s first Freedom Of Information Act request to the Dept. of Justice was “answered” with a few pages of heavily redacted material. A lawsuit filed by the EFF to compel full disclosure of Hemisphere documents stalled in May, 2016. The judge in that case vacated the suit and asked both parties to submit supplementary briefs.

Verizon and Sprint have not commented on Hemisphere, except to reiterate their data retention policies. Verizon stores metadata for only one year, and Sprint keeps it for 18 months. By contrast, AT&T has been collecting, storing and selling access to this data for almost 10 (and perhaps 30) years. The massive Hemisphere database is not necessary to AT&T’s operation or to meet legal storage requirements. Make no mistake: AT&T has made your metadata into a product, and is selling it to law enforcement, which pays with your tax money.

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Most recent comments on "A Hemisphere of (YOUR) Information"

Posted by:

15 Nov 2016

People of integrity and character who are not involved in illegal activities have nothing to worry about. Integrity and character are sadly lacking today. Wikileaks is proving that, with more to come. In addition, people post all kinds of information on social media, then wonder where government agencies get it. "Dah, my phone number is in the book? Yes, dummy, it is."

Posted by:

15 Nov 2016

WOW!!! It now makes sense about all those extra charges that are applied to cell phones monthly.

I have been an AT&T customer since they took over Bellsouth. I have always wondered why each phone on my Wireless Plan is charged all of these extra fees per phone. It should be one charge per account like they do with my landline phone and my U-Verse Internet.

For me, collecting data on my usage is a no brainer - I don't have any drug dealer or terrorist group connections. I am a normal, average user of my services. I call my family, doctors and loan people.

However, I do NOT like that my tax dollars are being used that way. Yes, I want drug dealers and terrorist groups to be monitored - They are responsible for a lot of criminal acts in the USA and around the world. But to be monitoring everyone - NO!

Posted by:

15 Nov 2016

I wonder how much it would cost to see who my girlfriend is calling?

Posted by:

15 Nov 2016

They are not collecting text of messages! If you are communicating with illegal/dangerous people on a regular basis then for one I'm glad someone is keeping track.
Does their income from this source actually keep our communication billing down? It should and would be glad of that also.

Posted by:

15 Nov 2016

People just don't understand - they say it's okay for the government to gather their data because they aren't criminals or terrorists. They just don't understand how it's the start of a slippery slope leading to the complete destruction of the Constitution. We all know the government starts small and eventually wants more and more leading to where all the rights we've had in the Constitution for over 200 years are GONE.

Posted by:

mike wax
15 Nov 2016

what about the ones who want to legitimately protest against the myriad forms of suppression and oppression perpetrated by bad people in government and media every day? They can be targeted and entrapped or harassed by well meaning people in law enforcement at the behest of some hidden, unscrupulous government agent who thinks he's protecting our liberties.
The most powerful and insidious mechanisms of control are the ones we never hear about. I for one would rather face the enemy from without than the one from within.

Posted by:

Bob k
15 Nov 2016

In the old days, when law enforcement suspected someone of criminal activities, they could go to a judge and obtain a court order to permit them to either wiretap a specific phone line, or have a pen recorder placed on the line. The purpose of the pen recorder was to record the time and date of numbers dialed.

Starting around the turn of the century (before 9/11) the phone companies started archiving on mag tape information about all calls made. This information was to be maintained for I think a minimum of 7 years. And, I heard the same rules were in effect for some other countries -- Great Britain specifically.

Today it appears that whenever information is wanted on calls made, it can be produced, not only from this date forward, but for as far back as the phone companies have maintained their archives. And, what does this information contain? Simply time and date of numbers called (like for a pen register), or is the content of the call also being saved?

Bonus question: If I am on the Do-Not-Call list, why can't I simply complain about receiving a call at a particular time, and have the people enforcing the DNC find the caller to my number at that time identified? No need for me to come up with a caller-ID number (probably spoofed).

Posted by:

15 Nov 2016

People keep telling me that the digital world is so good and opens so many doors etc. Maybe. BUT every time you turn on this computer, t.v., phone etc. one or more will tell you about how unsafe it all is. Nothing, it appears, is safe.

Gee they even found ways to steam open letters.

Posted by:

16 Nov 2016

I know that not everyone agrees, but I have no problem with law enforcement gathering data to help catch the bad guys, as long as the info is kept confidential otherwise. Which of course is not even possible for the average Joe to verify, this being one of the negatives to the program.

But in this day & age of extremely crazy lunes running around out there, some of which would have no problem with the use of a WMD if they had the opportunity to use it, we really have no choice but to use all means available to track down these nut cases. If you're not a criminal, you have no serious worries about this, IMO.

Posted by:

16 Nov 2016

Bob: Internet Explorer blocked a pop-up from your site. I figured it would be OK to allow it once. However, MBAM blocked it.

Not the proper place for this, I guess, but it's fresh on my mind.

Posted by:

Oliver Fleming
16 Nov 2016

With all the lawbreaking, drugs, murders and what have you. We should be grateful somebody is collecting this evidence. Honest people need not fear this.
Oliver Fleming

Posted by:

16 Nov 2016

Cricket uses AT&T's network and others do I'm sure. Is Hillary Clinton on the network? I've 2 Windows phones. AT&T and Cricket. They're not activated. I use them on WIFI as PDAs. Don't know that I want them to know where I am and everything I'm doing. But may not have a choice if a landline is not available.

Posted by:

Kenneth Maltby
17 Nov 2016

Thank you Bob, for continuing to highlight these liberties that are being taken by the 'authorities' As somebody who doesn't even live in the United States I object to this but have no say. Just like when I went to Mexico and was asked to form a line-up with all the other passengers when we stopped in Chicago on a stop-over before our onward flight. We were given no choice but to give our fingerprints and have our photo taken with our scanned passports, before being allowed on the next leg of our journey. All those naive idiots who say why worry if you've got nothing to hide or it's for your own benefit seem to have missed the point. I didn't vote for the man but Trump is now in control of all that data. God help us if he takes a dislike to Canadians

Posted by:

Ron Atkinson
17 Nov 2016

I live in the UK and don't know what the situation here is with regard to data collection by phone service suppliers. Do you know?

Posted by:

17 Nov 2016

Wake up people. You say you are law abiding and have nothing to fear? WAKE UP! Kristalllnacht can happen here. Who will be on the wrong side of the law then? If we the people do not fight for our constitutional rights they can be gone in a flash. Learn a little more history and be ever vigilant. Our great country may depend on it.

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