Law enforcement officials working in a government counternarcotics program have access to a huge AT&T database containing records of decades of phone calls, according to The New York Times.
The officials have had access to the database for at least six years, the article notes. They routinely use subpoenas to gain access. The partnership between federal and local drug officials, called the Hemisphere Project, covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch.
The government pays AT&T to place employees in drug-fighting units throughout the country. These employees work with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and local detectives, providing them with phone data from as far back as 1987. An estimated four billion call records are added to the database daily.
The information was provided to the newspaper by a peace activist named Drew Hendricks, who said he received a PowerPoint presentation on the project in response to public information requests to West Coast police agencies. The slides say the program was started in 2007. Until now, the existence of the program has been kept secret.
The Obama Administration said the project has been useful in tracking down criminals who discard cellphones often to help prevent government tracking. Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said, “subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations.” He noted the records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government, and added the project “simply streamlines the process of serving the subpoena to the phone company so law enforcement can quickly keep up with drug dealers when they switch phone numbers to try to avoid detection.”