A for-profit surveillance program carried out by US telecommunications giant AT&T was more serious than the 2013 NSA spying revelations, according to digital rights advocates.
AT&T’s Project Hemisphere was unveiled on 25 October 2016 by the Daily Beast to be secretly selling customer data to law enforcement agencies for the purpose of investigating everything from murder to medical fraud. AT&T reportedly has been retaining every call, text message, Skype chat or other communication that has passed through its infrastructure. Some of the records date back to 1987.
To gain access to the Hemisphere program, authorities (including sheriff and police departments) pay anything between $100,000 and millions of dollars. Only an administrative subpoena is required to access it, which does not need to be obtained by a judge.
Digital rights group Fight for the Future says that making customer data available to local police departments without a warrant goes beyond the government-level surveillance revealed by former NSA contract worker Edward Snowden.
“AT&T customers are outraged but this affects everyone,” Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, said. “AT&T went far beyond complying with legal government requests and actually built a powerful data mining product to sell our private information to as many government agencies and police departments as they could… If companies are allowed to operate in this manner without repercussions, our democracy has no future.”
Greer and other advocates have called for AT&T to shut down the program and for the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the use of the Hemisphere software.
The company owns more than three-quarters of U.S. landline switches, and the second largest share of the nation’s wireless infrastructure and cellphone towers, behind Verizon. AT&T retains its cell tower data going back to July 2008, longer than other providers. Verizon holds records for a year and Sprint for 18 months, according to a 2011 retention schedule obtained by The Daily Beast.