(CNN) – AT&T operates a vast database that collects billions of electronic details on telephone calls made by Americans that federal and local investigators can subpoena for use in investigations, according to government documents.
The AT&T database operates with a Drug Enforcement Administration program called the Hemisphere Project and is used by investigators for, among other things, tracking so-called burner phones, phones that some people switch out frequently to try to avoid surveillance.
According to the documents, the database can be useful for helping law enforcement to defeat such evasive measures. AT&T’s database contains records that go back to 1987, the documents say.
The Hemisphere Project, which dates to at least 2007, is detailed in a PowerPoint slide presentation prepared for law enforcement agencies. The PowerPoint documents were turned over in response to a public records request made to West Coast police agencies by Andrew Hendricks, who calls himself a “public documents geek and copwatcher [and] historian and radical political activist journalist muckraker” in Washington state. The New York Times reported on the documents Sunday night.
The documents surface amid controversy over government surveillance programs, particularly those run by the National Security Agency, that collect phone, e-mail and other records in an effort to thwart terror attacks.
The Obama administration has defended the NSA programs as necessary to protect national security and respectful of privacy rights. The DEA program differs from the NSA collection in major ways because the government isn’t gathering the data and investigators have to obtain subpoenas to access the information.
AT&T spokesman Mark Seigel said: “While we cannot comment on any particular matter, we, like all other companies, must respond to valid subpoenas issued by law enforcement.”
A U.S. law enforcement official said AT&T is the only carrier to work with the DEA program, which includes having phone company employees stationed with law enforcement analysts to expedite requests from investigators. The database doesn’t have the content of calls but rather “metadata” showing locations, what numbers a phone user is calling and how long the calls last.
The AT&T database collects information on calls made by its own customers and, particularly useful for investigators, customers of other phone companies and international phone users whose devices roam or place calls through AT&T’s network. The database collects about 4 billion call records daily; each phone call generates multiple call records depending on how long the call is and whether the user is traveling during the call.
That the DEA and other agencies can subpoena such records was widely known, as was the fact that the government has found ways to track burner phones. But the documents provide new detail of the vastness of the records and that instead of relying on a government database, AT&T is operating it.
Law enforcement officials say the fact the government isn’t collecting the data should assuage privacy and constitutional concerns. Existing law says that phone records aren’t private and that phone companies are allowed to collect them. The records are obtained via administrative and court-approved subpoenas.
“Subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations,” said Brian Fallon, Justice Department spokesman. “The records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government. This program 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.”
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the program raises privacy concerns.
“The government appears to have had a significant role in developing the program, and apparently it’s even paying the salaries of some AT&T employees,” Jaffer said. “To the extent that this is a government program, it’s subject to the Fourth Amendment. In any event, the fact that AT&T is playing such a big role here should be alarming, not reassuring. AT&T is looking out for its shareholders, not ordinary citizens, and its conduct isn’t governed by the Constitution.”
The program uses an algorithm to help find new phones used by users already being tracked, according to the government documents. The program can help pinpoint phones that law enforcement hasn’t yet uncovered, the documents say. Searches of the database can turn up call records as recent as an hour old, according to the documents.
The Hemisphere program, which is funded by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, is focused on regional High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area offices in Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta. The FBI and local police agencies used the database, according to the documents, and data are used in cases involving cocaine and other drug trafficking, and in the investigations of fugitives, kidnappings and missing persons.
The Hemisphere PowerPoint slides credit the program with solving several cases, including a probe that found multiple phones from Mexico and the United States used by traffickers and allowed the seizure of stashes of methamphetamine, cocaine and assault rifles.