National Security

AT&T used broad data-gathering system for federal government

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An AT&T system meant to assist the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) by searching through the company’s millions of stored phone records was used to help a broad array of government agencies on cases from Medicaid fraud to murder, according to a new report Tuesday.

Law enforcement officials pay the telecommunications giant from $100,000 to $1 million or more per year to get information from its massive data trove, according to the Daily Beast, which obtained internal company documents about the system.

{mosads}The program itself, known as “Hemisphere,” has been public information since 2013, when The New York Times revealed its existence. The Times reported then that the system was similar to but broader than a massive collection of phone records previously stored by the National Security Agency (NSA). That controversial NSA program was effectively ended last summer, following revelations from leaker Edward Snowden.

The arrangement calls for AT&T officials to search the company’s database on behalf of federal and local law enforcement officials, who pay for the access. The records under AT&T’s control can go back decades.

But new documents reported on by the Daily Beast on Tuesday detail the broad scope of the program, as well as the company’s efforts to disguise its extensive cooperation with the government.

According to one 2014 document obtained by the news outlet, AT&T requires law enforcement agencies “not to use the data as evidence in any judicial or administrative proceedings unless there is no other available and admissible probative evidence.”

The practice of disguising the source of evidence, known to lawyers as “parallel construction,” is viewed skeptically by civil rights activists who worry that it prevents people from challenging whether evidence against them was collected legally.

Law enforcement officials do not need a warrant to obtain access to AT&T’s system. Instead, the information can be acquired through administrative subpoenas, which are used by a greater number of agencies and do not require probable cause. 

An AT&T spokesman did not immediately respond to an inquiry from The Hill, though the company denied it had any “special database” to the Daily Beast.

“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,” AT&T told the news outlet.

Details about the AT&T service come days after the company announced plans to purchase Time Warner in a deal that could have a resounding impact on the media landscape.

The $85 billion proposal has drawn criticism from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has expressed some misgivings about the planned purchase, but her campaign has declined to say it should be blocked outright.  

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