Exposé of ‘Scandalous’ US Spying Sparks Calls for Congress to Act

“These new details add up to a horrifying picture that proves the need for Congress to… enact comprehensive privacy protections for Americans before reauthorizing any spying powers,” said one campaigner.

By Jessica Corbett. Published 11-20-2023 by Common Dreams

A U.S. senator is sounding the alarm about a “long-running dragnet surveillance program” enabling law enforcement to :request often-warrantless searches of trillions of domestic phone records.” Photo: Ivan Radic/flickr/CC

Privacy advocates on Monday renewed demands for swift congressional action on government surveillance in response to new WIRED reporting on a federally funded program through which law enforcement obtains phone records from AT&T.

“This is 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,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote Sunday in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, which WIRED obtained and published in full.

Wyden—a lead sponsor of the Government Surveillance Reform Act (GSRA), a bipartisan bill introduced earlier this month—shared some of what he has learned about the program and urged the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to release information about it.

Now known as Data Analytical Services (DAS), the program was initially revealed to the public as the Hemisphere Project by The New York Times in 2013. Information collected includes caller and recipient names, phone numbers, and dates and times of calls.

Based on what officials told Wyden’s staff, “all Hemisphere requests are sent to a single AT&T analyst located in Atlanta, Georgia, and… any law enforcement officer working for one of the federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. can contact the AT&T Hemisphere analyst directly to request they run a query, with varying authorization requirements,” the letter says.

The letter also explains that “although the Hemisphere Project is paid for with federal funds, they are delivered to AT&T through an obscure grant program, enabling the program to skip an otherwise mandatory federal privacy review” by the DOJ.

Citing a document provided by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Wyden noted that “White House funding for this program was suspended by the Obama administration in 2013, the same year the program was exposed by the press, but continued with other federal funding under a new generic sounding program name, ‘Data Analytical Services.'”

“ONDCP funding for this surveillance program was quietly resumed by the Trump administration in 2017, paused again in 2021, the first year of the Biden administration, and then quietly restarted again in 2022,” according to the senator.

“I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the materials provided by the DOJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress,” he wrote, referencing materials the department gave his office. “While I have long defended the government’s need to protect classified sources and methods, 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.”

WIRED pointed out that in addition to DAS not being subjected to a DOJ privacy review, “the White House is also exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, reducing the public’s overall ability to shed light on the program.”

While the White House “acknowledged an inquiry… but has yet to provide a comment,” WIRED reported, AT&T spokesperson Kim Hart Jonson declined to comment, “saying only that the company is required by law to comply with a lawful subpoena.”

“There is no law requiring AT&T to store decades’ worth of Americans’ call records for law enforcement purposes,” the outlet highlighted. “Documents reviewed by WIRED show that AT&T officials have attended law enforcement conferences in Texas as recently as 2018 to train police officials on how best to utilize AT&T’s voluntary, albeit revenue-generating, assistance.”

Responding in a statement Monday, Demand Progress policy director Sean Vitka noted that the reporting comes as members of Congress are considering whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows warrantless surveillance targeting foreigners located outside the United States and will expire at the end of 2023.

“Hemisphere appears to be Exhibit A for mass domestic surveillance, the data broker loophole, and even parallel construction,” said Vitka. “These new details add up to a horrifying picture that proves the need for Congress to close the data broker loophole and enact comprehensive privacy protections for Americans before reauthorizing any spying powers, most notably Section 702 of FISA. The fact that a White House office—one that is actively fighting FISA reform—restarted funding for Hemisphere in 2022, in spite of recent Supreme Court precedent, is scandalous.”

Demand Progress is among the groups backing Wyden’s recently unveiled legislation—which, as WIRED reported, would close various loopholes, “effectively rendering the DAS program, in its current form, explicitly illegal.”

Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which also endorsed the GSRA, said of the reporting: “This is exactly why Congress must pass comprehensive surveillance reform as a precondition for ANY reauthorization of FISA Section 702. The Government Surveillance Reform Act would put an end to the abuses revealed in this latest bombshell story.”

Freedom of the Press Foundation also acknowledged current reauthoriztion battle, saying on social media Monday: “So the [government] used loopholes to secretly restart a mass domestic surveillance program, and some lawmakers also want to re-up FISA Section 702 without real reforms because we can ‘trust’ authorities not to abuse their power to go after journalists and others? No thanks.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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