U.S. Senator criticises mass surveillance of phone records

Wyden at the U.S. Capitol
Together with other Senators, U.S. Senator Wyden recently drafted a new bill in which a court order would be mandatory for accessing phone records. (Source: IMAGO / ABACAPRESS)

The Democratic U.S. Senator, Ron Wyden, called on the Department of Justice to make public documents related to a not well-known surveillance program. “Hemisphere” allows U.S. law enforcement agencies to search through trillions of telephone records – often without a court order.

As Wyden communicated this past week, the documents in question are classified as “Law Enforcement Sensitive”, which would prevent them from being published. In a letter, he urged Attorney General Merrick Garland to remove these restrictions.

Wyden stated that he has serious doubts about the legality of the program. Additionally, the documents from the Department of Justice contain “troubling information” that would “justifiably outrage” many citizens and members of Congress.

AT&T’s involvement

The background is the so-called project “Hemisphere”. Wyden writes in his letter that the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy pays the telecommunications provider, AT&T, so that law enforcement agencies can search through “trillions of domestic phone calls”.

As U.S. publication, Wired, reports, phone records were involved – authorities can also retrieve who phoned whom and when the call was placed. Such inquiries can also be made about people who are not suspected of a crime. Potentially all phone calls made using the AT&T’s infrastructure are affected.

With reference to internal police documents, Wired writes that although “Hemisphere” should actually be dedicated to fighting drug trafficking that law enforcement agencies also used it for other cases that had no drugs involved.

For example, an officer from the Oakland Police Department attempted to obtain the telephone number of a suspect by requesting phone records from their friends. According to Wired, it is, however, not revealed in the documents whether the police also received this information. It is also unclear in the report how far the records date back.

The documents also show that officers from U.S. Immigration, The National Guard as well as many smaller authorities have participated in training for obtaining phone records.

The New York Times first reported on “Hemisphere” in 2013. Additionally, Wyden writes that the Department of Justice that has already acknowledged the existence of the surveillance program in federal court.

Financing from federal funds

According to Wired, the program is now referred to as “Data Analytical Services”. Under Barack Obama, The White House suspended funding after the New York Times published their report. However, funding has now returned.

The White House has declined to speak with Wired about this and an AT&T speaker has refused to comment.

According to the Wired report, “Hemisphere” is not subject to oversight from U.S. Congress. Wyden criticises in his letter that although it is paid for using federal funds, the money is delivered to AT&T using a non-transparent financing structure which is why, for example, no data protection impact assessment was required. Such an assessment would have been mandatory if federal authorities paid the telecommunications provider directly.

At the beginning of November, Wyden with other Senators introduced a bill for protecting privacy. As Wired writes, if the legislation were adopted as it currently stands, it would make the surveillance program “explicitly illegal”. This is because, among other things, prosecutors would only allowed to access phone records with a court order. (js)