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AT&T helps DEA track suspected drug dealers with phone call data

The phone company has been helping the agency’s Hemisphere Project by providing access to a database with 26 years of information that tracks 4 billion calls a day

‘Subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations,’ said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Department of Justice.

EDOUARD H.R. GLUCK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

‘Subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations,’ said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Department of Justice.

The feds have partnered with AT&T to reach out and touch alleged drug dealers.

The phone company has been helping the Drug Enforcement Agency’s “Hemisphere Project” by providing easy access to its massive database, which contains 26 years of information and tracks 4 billion calls a day, records show.

The government also pays AT&T to embed employees alongside DEA agents and investigators in locations around the country.

The employees can quickly supply the investigators with subpoenaed phone data and help them track down dealers, the report said, adding that the project has been highly successful in following suspects who frequently switch cellphones.

Some of the subpoenas are issued by the DEA itself — it’s one of a handful of government agencies that can issue its own “administrative subpoenas.”

The sought-after information — which can include the location of callers — “can be returned via email within an hour,” Hemisphere training documents crow.

A law enforcement source said the program is far different from the National Security Agency’s controversial phone data collection program, which was revealed by leaker Edward Snowden earlier this year.

“It’s not a surveillance program,” the source said of Hemisphere, but a mechanism to speed up access to information about specific phone numbers.

“We’re trying to keep up with the drug dealers,” the source said.

The government pays AT&T to embed its employees with government agents around the country.
The government pays AT&T to embed its employees with government agents around the country.

While the AT&T data goes back 26 years, the source said, that’s not much of a help to the feds.

“We rarely need to look at anything older than 18 months,” the source said.

The existence of the program was first reported Monday in the New York Times.

The source told the Daily News that only AT&T is involved with the program, but the company can track any calls that use its switches.

Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said Hemisphere “simply streamlines 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 detection.

“Subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations,” he added, stressing that “records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government.”

The report about the previously undisclosed program came after an activist in Washington state received training slides on the operation from public information requests to unidentified West Coast police agencies.

The information was marked “law enforcement sensitive,” but was not classified. The slides had the logo for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy on them, the Times reported.

A spokesman for AT&T said in a release, “We, like all other companies, must respond to valid subpoenas issued by law enforcement.”

Article Credit: New York Daily News

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