Ron Wyden, a US senator, wants the public to be aware of the specifics surrounding the ongoing phone surveillance program in the Hemisphere. Merrick Garland has been asked by Wyden in a letter ( PDF) to provide more details about the project, which reportedly gives law enforcement organizations access to trillions of domestic phone records. He added that from the project’s phone records, which AT&T has been gathering since 1987, federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies may request “often- warrantless searches.”
When The New York Times revealed that AT&T was being paid by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy ( ONDCP ) to record and mine customer phone calls, the Hemisphere project was first made public in 2013. Every day, four billion new records are added to its database, and any federal or state law enforcement agency is free to submit a subpoena request. According to Wyden’s letter, any law enforcement officer can request information that is unrelated to any drug cases from a single AT&T analyst based in Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, it appears that they can use Hemisphere to find the target’s alternate numbers, find out where they are, and look up everyone who has spoken to them on the phone.
Over the past ten years, the government has repeatedly defunded and refunded the project. At one point, it even received federal funding under the name” Data Analytical Services ( DAS )”. Typically, the Department of Justice would conduct a mandatory Privacy Impact Assessment on projects funded by federal agencies, which would make their records available to the public.
However, Hemisphere’s funding is handled by a middleman, so mandatory assessment is not necessary. The Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a regional funding organization that disperses federal anti-drug law grants and is overseen by federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, is where ONDCP specifically funds the program. In 2019, the DOJ gave Wyden’s office “dozens of pages of material” about the project, but they were classified as” Law Enforcement Sensitive” and were not made available to the general public.
Wyden wrote in his letter,” I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the DOJ’s materials contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress.” The DOJ has already acknowledged the existence of this surveillance program in federal court, despite my long defense of the government’s need to safeguard classified sources and methods. The need to conceal this information is far outweighed by the public’s interest in a thoughtful discussion about government surveillance.