Since at least 2007, DEA agents and local police detectives have had regular access to a gigantic database that contains detailed records of every American phone call that's passed through an AT&T switch in the past 26 years. The program, named the Hemisphere Project, also pays AT&T employees to work alongside drug-enforcement officers stationed in three states.

According to a report in the New York Times, the Hemisphere Project began in 2007 and has been carried out in secret since. The database goes back to 1987 and includes information about every call that's gone through an AT&T switch. That information consists of user's phone numbers, the time and duration of their calls, and their location. About 4 billion new calls are added to the database each day. For comparison, the Patriot Act allows the NSA to store just five years worth of caller information, which can only include phone numbers and the time and duration of calls.

The Times learned about the project from a training PowerPoint presentation, which they were given by a peace activist named Drew Hendricks. The presentation is labeled “Law enforcement sensitive,” but not classified.

“I’d speculate that one reason for the secrecy of the program is that it would be very hard to justify it to the public or the courts,” Jameel Jaffer, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times.

The Justice Department released a statement defending the program, emphasizing the fact that the phone data is stored by AT&T, not the government, and is only accessible though "administrative subpoenas, those issued not by a grand jury or a judge but by a federal agency, in this case the D.E.A."

Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement that “subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations.”

Mr. Fallon said that “the records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government,” and that 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.”

Daniel Richman, a law professor at Columbia, seemed to agree with the Justice Department's statement.

“Is this a massive change in the way the government operates? No,” Richman told the Times. “Actually you could say that it’s a desperate effort by the government to catch up.”

Representatives from other major phone companies, including Sprint and T-Mobile refused to answer the Times' questions about whether they were involved with similar programs.

[Image via AP]

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