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'Stunning' Surveillance Program Lets Law Enforcement Spy on Trillions of US Phone Calls

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According to a recent letter sent by a U.S. senator to the Justice Department, there's a secret surveillance program tracking more than a trillion phone records within the United States each year.

The six-page letter sent by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, and obtained and first reported by WIRED, questions the legality of the Hemisphere Project. It's a project described in the letter as "a long-running dragnet surveillance program in which the White House pays AT&T to provide all federal, state, local, and Tribal law enforcement agencies the ability to request often-warrantless searches of trillions of domestic phone records."

According to Wyden's letter, the Hemisphere Project was renamed "Data Analytical Services" (DAS) after the New York Times revealed the existence of the program in 2013. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) paid AT&T to gather the details of Americans' telephone calls for the benefit of law enforcement agencies who can access records of those calls at any time. 

This DAS program includes analyzing the phone records of people not suspected of any crime, including victims, WIRED reported. 

Using a technique known as chain analysis, the program also tracks alternative telephone numbers used by a suspect and his or her location.  Plus, it can be used to analyze the phone records of everyone who spoke to a certain suspect.

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According to Wyden's letter, AT&T has kept queries as part of the Hemisphere Project call records going back 36 years with 4 billion new records being added every day. The scale of the data available is "stunning it its scope." 

"One law enforcement official described the Hemisphere Project as 'AT&T's Super Search Engine' and ...'Google on Steroids,' according to emails released by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the Freedom of Information Act," the letter said. 

The DAS program is run in coordination with AT&T, which captures and conducts analysis of U.S. call records for law enforcement agencies, from local police and sheriffs' departments to US customs offices and postal inspectors across the country, according to a White House memo reviewed by WIRED

Records show the White House has provided more than $6 million to the program, which reportedly allows the targeting of the records of any calls that use AT&T's infrastructure across the U.S. 

In his letter to Garland, Wyden wrote he had tried to get the DOJ to release information related to the Hemisphere Project over the past year, but his office was stymied in its efforts because the information had been designated as "Law Enforcement Sensitive."

Wyden wrote he had "serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program."

"While I have long defended the government's need to protect classified sources and methods," the Oregon senator said, "this surveillance program is not classified and its existence has already been acknowledged by the DOJ in federal court."

"The public interest in an informed debate about government surveillance far outweighs the need to keep this information secret," Wyden added. 

AT&T spokesperson Kim Hart Jonson declined WIRED's request to comment on the DAS program, saying only that the company is required by law to comply with a lawful subpoena.

The outlet noted there is no law requiring AT&T to store decades' worth of Americans' call records for law enforcement purposes. 

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About The Author

Steve Warren is a senior multimedia producer for CBN News. Warren has worked in the news departments of television stations and cable networks across the country. In addition, he also worked as a producer-director in television production and on-air promotion. A Civil War historian, he authored the book The Second Battle of Cabin Creek: Brilliant Victory. It was the companion book to the television documentary titled Last Raid at Cabin Creek currently streaming on Amazon Prime. He holds an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in Communication from the University of