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AT&T Is Selling Law Enforcement Access to Its Customers’ Data

Internal documents suggest the company charges investigators to use a tool that mines its customers’ metadata.
October 25, 2016

AT&T is one busy company. It boasts the second-largest mobile network in the U.S., owns a huge chunk of the landline infrastructure in the country, and has just made a bid to buy Time Warner for $85 billion. Oh, and it’s charging millions of dollars a year for a program that helps federal agents and police mine its customers’ phone records, chats, texts, locations, and other data.

A report out Tuesday in the Daily Beast is a bit of a bombshell, shedding new light on AT&T’s shadowy Hemisphere program. Hemisphere has been known about since 2013, when the New York Times found evidence that AT&T had “partnered” with the Drug Enforcement Agency to use the company’s considerable store of customer data to investigate drug crimes.

According to the new report, though, Hemisphere isn’t a partnership at all—it’s a product. AT&T has crafted a data-mining service that can sift through metadata on just about any form of communication a customer makes over its networks, teasing out patterns that would otherwise be invisible to investigators. Here’s how the Daily Beast article describes it:

The database allows its analysts to detect hidden patterns and connections between call detail records, and make highly accurate inferences about the associations and movements of the people Hemisphere is used to surveil. Its database is particularly useful for tracking a subscriber between multiple discarded phone numbers, as when drug dealers use successive prepaid “burner” phones to evade conventional surveillance.

And what do you know? AT&T charges the agencies it works with for access to Hemisphere, earning millions of dollars a year in the process. That cost is often reimbursed through a federal grant program—in other words, your tax dollars are being used to pay AT&T for its for-profit surveillance program.

Asked for comment on Hemisphere, an AT&T spokesperson insisted that the company hands over information only as required by federal law. But the company not only holds onto customer data far longer than Verizon or Sprint (it is thought to possess a stash of metadata bigger than that accumulated under the NSA’s bulk collections program), it also requires the agencies it works with to hide the existence of the Hemisphere program if at all possible.

That would suggest the company knows just how bad it would look if the public found out it had turned the sensitive task of complying with requests for customer data into a tidy business.

(Read more: Daily Beast, “How Do We Stop Our Social Feeds from Being Spied On?,” “As It Searches for Suspects, the FBI May Be Looking at You,” “What If Apple Is Wrong?”)

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