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Senator’s Letter Exposes Disturbing Extent of Phone Surveillance Program

Information privacy advocates are demanding Congress open an inquiry into the program formerly known as Hemisphere.

A government surveillance program funded by the White House that tracks trillions of domestic phone records, oftentimes without the need to obtain a warrant before doing so, is incredibly expansive and “troubling,” a U.S. senator said in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland.

According to an analysis this week of the letter by tech news site Wired, which was written by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the program, formerly called Hemisphere and now known as Data Analytical Services (DAS), allows law enforcement agencies across the country — from local police and sheriff’s departments, all the way up to federal agencies — to simply ask for phone records from the program, with little, or no oversight whatsoever.

A person needn’t be suspected of a crime in order to be surveilled under the program, and a warrant isn’t necessary to get the information. Per the letter, the “chain analysis” that DAS utilizes allows it to not only monitor those who have direct phone conversations with those who are suspected of a crime, but also to monitor the calls of people with secondary connections to suspects. In other words, people who call people who have called those suspected of committing a crime.

Around 4 billion new records are added to DAS for analysis daily. Analysis is conducted in conjunction with the telecommunications megagiant AT&T, which has received around $6 million from the White House for its cooperation.

The Hemisphere program was first exposed in a New York Times report in 2013. At the time, it was understood that the program was used solely for drug-related investigations, but Wyden’s letter indicates that DAS is being used by agencies across the U.S. for any of their investigations.

A few years later, it was revealed that AT&T required law enforcement agencies to take every step possible not to mention that it received evidence from the company.

“[T]he Government agency agrees not to use the data as evidence in any judicial or administrative proceedings unless there is no other available and admissible probative evidence,” a contract from AT&T with agencies reads. “The Government Agency shall make every effort to insure that information provided by the Contractor is non-attributable to AT&T if the data is provided to a third-party.”

Wyden expressed “serious concerns about the legality” of the DAS program in his letter, which was addressed directly to Garland. Wyden received information on DAS in 2019 but was unable to comment on it due to the “Law Enforcement Sensitive” status that the program falls under. It’s as yet unclear how Wired obtained the letter, which it published on its website on Tuesday.

“The materials provided by the DOJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress,” Wyden said in his letter. “While I have long defended the government’s need to protect classified sources and methods, this surveillance program is not classified and its existence has already been acknowledged by the DOJ in federal court. The public interest in an informed debate about government surveillance far outweighs the need to keep this information secret.”

Reacting to the Wired report on DAS, Jeramie Scott, senior counsel and director of the Project on Surveillance Oversight at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), demanded a federal inquiry into the program.

“The Data Analytical Services (DAS) and its predecessor, Hemisphere, are yet another piece of the warrantless government surveillance ecosystem, which has enabled the government to acquire staggering amounts of Americans’ most sensitive information,” Scott said. “Congress must conduct a hearing on DAS immediately.”

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