Tuesday, September 03, 2013

More on US government data gathering: Project Hemisphere, Spying on Brazil & Mexico

Well, just as President Obama is asking the Congress to grant him extraordinary powers to attack Syria, a couple more stories are popping up about extensive data gathering or spying by the United States. 

Brazil and Mexico are both summoning U.S. ambassadors to discuss how their sovereignty has been violated by spying. This is more fallout from the revelations of Edward Snowden about National Security Agency (NSA) activities.

And, more disturbing to U.S. citizens, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents appear to have had access for six years to a database of telephone calls that dwarfs that used by the NSA.  The New York Times reported on the Hemisphere Project, where employees of AT&T were actually embedded with the DEA and would thus be available on short notice to use the AT&T database as soon as a subpoena was received. The database was owned and housed by AT&T, and not accessed directly by the government agents, which raises interesting questions under the Fourth Amendment for Search and Seizure afficionados. 

But the DEA agents had access to far more data than the NSA agents through the Hemisphere Project. The database includes every phone call that passed through an AT&T switch for the past 26 years, not just AT&T customers.  That is a huge swath of the telephone calls made in the world, and certainly across the North American continent.  The metadata includes the city and state of the caller, and is aimed largely at trying to identify and track the cell phones that criminals buy, discard and replace to avoid tracking by law enforcement.  

The database was actually available to other agencies besides the DEA, and was also largely used by Homeland security, and to a lesser extent by the FBI and several agencies in Washington state.  A portion of the PowerPoint slide show that was released, eventually, to the New York Times (probably accidentally), discusses the importance of protecting the program from discovery.  Project Hemisphere is not classified, but is "law enforcement sensitive."

While the slides show several success stories about arrests enabled by Project Hemisphere, we should ask at what price these arrests are coming.  How much access to records, to privacy, are we willing to cede to government officials?  In an era of increasing digital collection, we should consider, as a society, where we stand on the search and seizure, Fourth Amendment rights enshrined in a different age.

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