The DEA Is Monitoring Your Phone Calls
On Sunday, the New York Times revealed the existence of a program known as the Hemisphere Project, which gives the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement agencies around the country access to a database of Americans’ phone records that goes back to 1987. You might think that a judge would have to sign off on a subpoena in order for the cops to view your phone records, but the process is actually much more streamlined (and invasive): the federal government reportedly pays AT&T to have the telecom giant’s employees sit next to DEA agents and local police detectives and show them whatever data they need. Technically, the information is stored by AT&T and not the government (this avoids some sticky legal issues), but in practice the cops have access to a database that logs billions of calls a day and includes not only who you called, but where you were when you placed the call. (Your call gets logged if it passes through an AT&T-owned system; you don’t have to be a customer of the company for them to have your data.) The current official Obama administration excuse for the program they were forced to admit the existence of is that it helps track down drug dealers and other criminals who tend to use difficult-to-track disposable cellphones.
This story comes on the heels of a story published by Reuters last month that detailed the NSA´s quasi-legal habit of passing on tips to other agencies, like the DEA, that don’t normally work on national security-related cases. After being given these tips, investigators then “recreate” where they got their evidence in a trick known as “parallel construction,” which allows them to hide where they got their information from defendants, judges, and even prosecutors. (Members of Congress have been pressing Attorney General Eric Holder about this, and he claims this is a common tactic used to protect sources.)
All these revelations about the scope of the information the DEA has access to are frightening, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although the government originally claimed that it would only use its massive powers of data collection and surveillance in serious, rare, 24-type situations, of course they are using these same powers to go after more mundane criminals. For instance, “sneak and peek” warrants, which allow the police to search your property without informing you as they normally would, were legalized by the terrorism-centric PATRIOT Act but somehow wound up being used more often in drug investigations. This sort of codependent relationship between the war on drugs and the national security state makes it difficult to separate the two. It’s becoming clear that it’s unrealistic to ask the government to play by the rules law enforcement is supposed to be following except in situations where big bad terrorists are involved; mission creep is inevitable. More than one tentacle of government needs to be hacked off before Americans get some privacy back.