DEA Uses Phone Co Database to Nab Drug Suspects

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on September 03, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

For the last six years, law enforcement officials have been accessing a giant AT&T database through an anti-narcotics program called the Hemisphere Project. The project differs from the National Security Agency's phone tracking in a couple of major ways.

Here's what the Hemisphere Project is all about and what legal concerns it's raising.

The Hemisphere Project

The Hemisphere Project is a counternarcotics partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T, according to The New York Times. The program, which has been ongoing for at least six years, enables law enforcement officials, through subpoenas, to access an expansive AT&T database with records of decades of Americans' phone calls.

Typically, subpoenas are issued by a grand jury or a judge. But the Hemisphere Project runs on "administrative subpoenas," which are issued by a federal agency, in this case, the Drug Enforcement Agency.

You may be thinking this is basically "NSA Surveillance: Part II," but the two surveillance programs actually differ in at least two very important ways:

  • The data is used for law enforcement, rather than for national security; and
  • The phone data is stored and maintained by AT&T, and not by the government as in the NSA program.

The goal of Hemisphere is to streamline the process of serving the subpoena to the phone company so law enforcement can quickly keep up with drug dealers when they switch phone numbers to try to avoid getting caught by law enforcement, a federal official told The Times.

Fourth Amendment Concerns

Even though AT&T, a private company, is storing and maintaining the data, the integration of government agents into the process (of the collection, storage and use of the records) triggers Fourth Amendment concerns.

The big Fourth Amendment question here is whether the government's possession of huge amounts of private data is reasonable.

Under the Fourth Amendment, government searches must be reasonable. The government believes it's acting well within the confines of the Fourth Amendment and isn't doing anything novel, reports The Times. After all, it's quite common to subpoena drug dealers' phone records in the course of criminal investigations.

But privacy advocates believe the vast scope of the Hemisphere Project, as well as the secrecy surrounding it and the lack of judicial oversight involved in the subpoena process, may raise constitutional issues further down the road.

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