SEATTLE — For at least six years, federal drug and other agents have had access to billions of phone call records in a collaboration with AT&T that officials have kept secret, newly released documents show.
The program, previously reported by ABC News and the New York Times, is called the Hemisphere Project. It's paid for by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and it lets investigators armed with subpoenas mine the company's database to help track down drug traffickers or other suspects who switch cellphones to avoid detection.
If agents become aware of a phone number previously used by a suspect, they can write an administrative subpoena, with no judicial oversight required, for records about that number.
Hemisphere analysts can track the number's call history or other characteristics and compare it with the history and characteristics of phones still in use — thus winnowing down a list of possible current phone numbers for the suspect, along with the location.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the program raises several privacy concerns. For example, if a query returns call records that are similar to, but not, those of the suspect, agents could be reviewing call records of people who haven't done anything wrong.
The details of Hemisphere come amid a national debate about the federal government's access to phone records, particularly the bulk collection of phone records for national security purposes. Hemisphere, however, takes a different approach from that of the National Security Agency, which maintains a database of call records handed over by phone companies as authorized by the Patriot Act.
"Subpoenaing drug dealers' phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations," Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said in an email. "The records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government."
AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said in an email, "While we cannot comment on any particular matter, we, like all other companies, must respond to valid subpoenas issued by law enforcement."