Your Tax Dollars At Work: AT&T Hemisphere Program Allegedly Data Mines And Spies On Citizens For Profit

AT&T might still be basking in the glow of its much ballyhooed blockbuster deal to acquire Time Warner for $85 billion, but that is not why the company is the focus of attention today. While the Time Warner mashup has regulators and customers understandably worried, AT&T is being accused of even more dastardly deeds with its wireless and wireline phone businesses.

AT&T has allegedly been running a secret program called Project Hemisphere, which has been effectively crawling through trillions of customer phone records, metadata and location information. While the Department of Justice has extolled the benefits of the program to help it combat the war on drugs, The Daily Beast reports that Hemisphere has been used in everything from homicide investigations to tackling Medicaid fraud.


What’s even more interesting is that government officials reportedly don’t even need a warrant to access the treasure trove of data that has been sucked up by Hemisphere according to company documents. Instead, AT&T just asked that the law enforcement agencies keep quiet about the existence of the program (for obvious reasons).

AT&T, however, pushed back on the revelation that a warrant is not required to access the data. “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,” said an AT&T spokesperson in a statement to TheWrap. “These types of legal demands are referenced in the law enforcement section of our Transparency Report.”

Who do we believe? AT&T’s own internal documents or the words of a spokesperson that is paid to minimize fallout for his or her company?

And here’s the real kicker: AT&T is actually profiting handsomely by providing the call data of its customers to government entities. Police departments around the country pay AT&T anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million per year for access to Hemisphere. AT&T initially lured sheriff and police departments with relatively low pricing on access, as Harris County, Texas paid “only” $78,000 back in 2007. However, by the time 2011 rolled around, the county was paying a whopping $940,000 per year for that same access. Knowing AT&T’s penchant for raising rates, we wouldn’t be surprised if Harris County is paying in excess of $1 million in 2016 for access.

And of course, you the taxpayer ends up footing the bill for these programs — the same programs that are being used to compromise your privacy on a regular basis.

“It’s like that line, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Once a company creates a huge surveillance apparatus like this and provides it to law enforcement, they then have to provide it whenever the government asks,” writes Christopher Soghoian, ACLU technology policy analyst. “They’ve developed this massive program and of course they’re going to sell it to as many people as possible.”