SEATTLE — For at least six years, federal drug and other agents have had near-immediate access to billions of phone call records dating back decades in a collaboration with AT&T that officials have taken pains to keep secret, newly released documents show.
The program, previously reported by ABC News and The New York Times, is called the Hemisphere Project. It's paid for by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and it allows investigators armed with subpoenas to quickly mine the company's vast database to help track down drug traffickers or other suspects who switch cellphones to avoid detection.
The details of the Hemisphere Project come amid a national debate about the federal government's access to phone records, particularly the bulk collection of phone records for national security purposes. Hemisphere, however, takes a different approach from that of the National Security Agency, which maintains a database of call records handed over by phone companies as authorized by the USA Patriot Act.
"Subpoenaing drug dealers' phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations," Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said in an email. "The records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government. This 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."
The Associated Press independently obtained a series of slides detailing Hemisphere. They show the database includes not just records of AT&T customers, but of any call that passes through an AT&T switch.
The federal government pays the salaries of four AT&T employees who work in three federal anti-drug offices around the country to expedite subpoena requests, an Obama administration official told the AP on Monday.
The Hemisphere database includes records that date back to 1987, the official said, but typical narcotics investigations focus on records no older than 18 months.
To keep the program secret, investigators who request searches of the database are instructed to "never refer to Hemisphere in any official document," one of the slides noted. Agents are told that when they obtain information through a Hemisphere program subpoena, they should "wall off" the program by filing a duplicative subpoena directly to target's phone company or by simply writing that the information was obtained through an AT&T subpoena.
It wasn't immediately clear what percentage of U.S. calls are routed through AT&T switches and thus have records captured in Hemisphere. One slide says the program includes records "for a tremendous amount of international numbers that place calls through or roam on the AT&T network."
"While we cannot comment on any particular matter, we, like all other companies, must respond to valid subpoenas issued by law enforcement," AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said in an email.
According to the slides, the program is useful for investigators trying to track down drug traffickers or other criminals who frequently change phones or use multiple phones. If agents become aware of a phone number previously used by a suspect, they can write an administrative subpoena, with no judicial oversight required, for records about that number.
Hemisphere analysts can track the number's call history or other characteristics and compare it to the history and characteristics of phones still in use -- thus winnowing down a list of possible current phone numbers for the suspect, along with their location.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the program raises several privacy concerns, including that if a query returns call records that are similar to, but not, those of the suspect, agents could be reviewing call records of people who haven't done anything wrong.