Details Demanded on Super-Snooping Program

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Department of Justice conceals information about embedding telephone company employees in law enforcement agencies that track billions of phone calls a day, the Electronic Frontier Foundation claims in court.
     The EFF filed similar Freedom of Information complaints on July 9 against the Department of Justice, in Federal Court, and against the California attorney general, in Superior Court.
     The nonprofit watchdog seeks information about the federal government’s Hemisphere Project, which for more than a decade gave law enforcement agencies expedited access to records of every phone call made through AT&T switchboards – about 4 billion calls a day.
     The surveillance program was revealed through leaked government documents in 2013, and the defendants continue to conceal details of their mass collection of citizens’ private phone records, the EFF says.
     It claims the defendants wrongfully exempted or redacted enormous amounts of records from FOIA requests, including how much AT&T was paid and the names of agencies participating in the program.
     The Drug Enforcement Agency withheld 132 pages and heavily censored the 176 pages it did release, said EFF attorney Hanni Fakhoury.
     Fakhoury told Courthouse News that the records the DEA did provide “were almost all entirely redacted so that we basically learned nothing new.”
     “We couldn’t really make heads and tails of anything provided.”
     In a maze of PowerPoint presentations and PDF files, the information details a partnership that embeds AT&T employees in law enforcement agencies across the country, all paid for by the federal government. The Hemisphere Project gives law enforcement officials expedited access to phone records via a streamlined subpoena process and tracks the location and duration of the calls.
     Police agencies, or requesters, can bypass the court-issued warrants process for phone records through “parallel subpoenaing.”
     Once a requester gains a suspect’s call information from an AT&T employee, it can request a second subpoena to the suspect’s phone provider, often another company than AT&T.
     “Therefore, the only way to get a complete and accurate picture of the target’s phone activity is to subpoena and review a complete set of the carrier’s [call detail records,” according to an Office of Drug Control Policy-stamped PowerPoint slide.
     In a training slide called “Protecting the Program,” law enforcement agencies are instructed to “never refer to Hemisphere in any official document” and that “protecting the program is a formidable but necessary challenge.”
     Several slides and files released to EFF contain large blank spots, which the foundation suspects were used to conceal the names of the law enforcement agencies that use the database.
     The program is touted as an efficient method to hunt down criminals who have ditched old cell phones to avoid being traced.
     The EFF says the Hemisphere Program is shrouded in secrecy and that the government must provide clarity, in light of the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance of phone records.
     ”These lawsuits seek transparency over a program that allows law enforcement agencies to tap into a vast phone record database without court oversight,” EFF senior staff attorney Jennifer Lynch said in a statement. ”The agencies are misusing public records laws to hide information that is crucial to understanding how the Hemisphere program is being used.”
     While the cost of the program is unknown, the EFF found an invoice from a Houston-area law enforcement agency that was charged $29,000 for a year’s access to AT&T records. In a 2014 memo, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston said it has used the Hemisphere program for many years and that it is a “crucial service, only available through AT&T Government services.”
     The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
     Ironically, the day after the EFF sued, the Department of Justice unveiled a “proactive disclosure” pilot program that it says will “test the feasibility of posting online FOIA responses so that they are available not just to the individual requester, but to the general public as well.”
     In both complaints, the EFF wants to see the record. It is represented in both cases by house attorneys Lynch and Fakhoury.

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