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Documents obtained by The Daily Beast have shed light on AT&T’s massive data mining operation to assist in government surveillance. The program is called Project Hemisphere. It was mentioned in an article by The New York Times in 2013, but the recently revealed documents show that the scope of the project is larger than originally believed.

The foundation of Project Hemisphere is a massive database of communication metadata. AT&T stores data about every communication that has passed over its network, whether its phone calls, text messages or skype calls. It has been reported that the company has records going all the way back 1987, and the size of its communications database exceeds even that of the NSA. AT&T is required to turn over records they have if served with a warrant, but the company goes above and beyond what is required by law.

AT&T also offers a sophisticated analysis of the metadata. It can draw conclusions about a person’s movements throughout the day or track a person across multiple burner phones. The analysis can also determine if two parties are in frequent communication. AT&T grants access to its database and analysis without a warrant, and only requires an administrative subpoena. Administrative subpoenas are issued by the investigating agencies rather than a  judge, and do not require probable cause.

The original coverage of the program in 2013 suggested that it was a partnership between the DEA and AT&T in order to deal with drug-related crimes. The Daily Beast reports that local and federal law enforcement agents across the country make use of Hemisphere to investigate a wide range of crimes from murder to fraud. The price paid by police departments and federal agencies to access Hemisphere varies considerably. Police might pay anywhere from $100,000 to over $1 million in order to access Hemisphere.

One document shared by the Daily Beast shows that AT&T was very concerned about maintaining the secrecy of this program. The contract specifically requires the government agency to make sure that any data provided by AT&T can not be attributed to the company if it is shared with a third party. The contract also requires that the evidence not be used in any judicial or administrative proceedings unless there is no other evidence available to make the case. It may seem odd to provide evidence with the intention that it not be used in court, but its actually part of a practice called parallel construction.

Parallel construction is a technique where investigators obtain evidence illegally just to get a lead. Once they figure out who to focus on, they try to obtain evidence through legal means which will actually stand up in court. Adam Schwartz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation is shocked that parallel construction seems to be a requirement of the contract between AT&T and government agencies. He told the Daily Beast:

This document here is striking I’ve seen documents produced by the government regarding Hemisphere, but this is the first time I’ve seen an AT&T document which requires parallel construction in a service to government. It’s very troubling and not the way law enforcement should work in this country.

At a minimum there is a very serious question whether they should be doing it without a warrant. A benefit to the parallel construction is they never have to face that crucible. Then the judge, the defendant, the general public, the media, and elected officials never know that AT&T and police across America funded by the White House are using the world’s largest metadata database to surveil people.

An AT&T spokesman told the Daily Beast that the company provides nothing more to police than what is required by law. He stated:

Like other communications companies, if a government agency seeks customer call records through a subpoena, court order or other mandatory legal process, we are required by law to provide this non-content information, such as the phone numbers and the date and time of calls.

Is AT&T violating the privacy of its customers with Project Hemisphere? Leave your comments below.


Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.