Controversial White House Surveillance Program Gives Law Enforcement Access to Vast Amounts of US Phone Records

The DAS program resembles several previous mass surveillance initiatives, such as a Drug Enforcement Agency program launched in 1992 that compelled phone companies to hand over records of nearly all calls to and from over 100 other countries. Additionally, it draws parallels with the National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection program, which was deemed illegal by the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014, and the Call Details Records program, which faced issues with “technical irregularities” resulting in the unauthorized collection of millions of calls by the NSA.

Unlike its predecessors, the DAS program is not subject to congressional oversight. According to a senior aide of Wyden, the program exploits various “loopholes” in federal privacy law. For example, its operation from the White House exempts it from rules mandating assessments of its privacy implications. Furthermore, the White House is not bound by the Freedom of Information Act, diminishing public transparency regarding the program.

Due to AT&T’s collection of call records along a telecommunications “backbone,” protections outlined in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act may not be applicable to the program.

Recently, Wyden and other legislators presented a comprehensive privacy bill, the Government Surveillance Reform Act, which includes provisions that, if enacted, would close most, if not all, of these loopholes, effectively rendering the current form of the DAS program explicitly illegal.

To read Wyden’s full letter to the US Department of Justice, click below:

The Honorable Merrick B. Garland
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Garland:

I am writing to request that you authorize the release of additional information about the Hemisphere Project. This long-standing mass surveillance program involves the White House paying AT&T to provide all federal, state, local, and Tribal law enforcement agencies with the ability to conduct often-warrantless searches of vast amounts of domestic phone records.

In 2013, the New York Times uncovered a surveillance program in which the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) pays AT&T to analyze its customers’ records for the benefit of federal, state, local, and Tribal law enforcement agencies. According to an ONDCP slide deck, AT&T has retained and queried call records as part of the Hemisphere Project dating back to 1987, with 4 billion new records being added daily. This slide deck was apparently disclosed by a local law enforcement agency in response to a public information request and was published by the New York Times in 2013.

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