Lest anyone forget that the NSA and FBI are not the only federal agencies spying on Americans, the New York Times revealed Monday that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has partnered with AT&T to access up to 26 years of people’s phone records.
Dubbed the Hemisphere project, it currently pays four AT&T employees to work in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program with local law enforcement and DEA agents. In order to access phone records, agents need only obtain an administrative subpoena, an internal procedure that circumvents pesky judges or juries weighing the merits of the agents’ requests.
The scale of private information available to government agents under the Hemisphere project dwarfs that of the NSA, which keeps its vast collection of phone and email records for five years, rather than decades. Location data is included, and calls need not originate from AT&T customers–rather, they must simply route through an AT&T switch. The company adds 4 billion calls to its database daily. And while highly concentrated on the country’s southern border, HIDTA also operates along the northern border, on the east and west coasts, in Hawaii, and in some portion of almost every state in the union.
Naturally, the government insists that the project is perfectly legal and appropriate, and nothing out of the ordinary in drug investigations. One is forced to wonder, then, why documents about Hemisphere explicitly proclaim, “All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document.” Indeed, the only reason the project has come to light is through a peace activist’s FOIA request.
Given the program’s vast reach, the public should know more: the number of requests agents place, and the rate at which they obtain subpoenas. When corporate employees with access to masses of private data work side by side with law enforcement, it is a recipe for widespread Fourth Amendment violations. The DEA’s vested interest is in gaining access to information. AT&T, a repeat privacy offender, has a financial interest in staying on the Hemisphere payroll. In The New Jim Crow, law professor Michelle Alexander exposed how the domestic war on drugs has already caused a prolific erosion of civil liberties, and the law enforcement agencies on the front lines of that battle are in no position to police themselves with regard to people’s rights.
This is yet another example of howexecutive encroachment into Americans’ private lives is not just a feature of the “War on Terror,” justified in the pursuit of “national security.” It’s a potent power that domestic law enforcement will inevitably seek for its own ends. This is precisely what the People’s Blog has been warning all along: powers once seized by the government are extremely difficult to contain, and without organized resistance from the people, they will continue to grow unchecked.