AT&T accused of selling user information to the government
AT&T accused of selling user information to the government. Image credit: Engadget.

The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday AT&T had been carrying out a secret surveillance program for U.S. law enforcement agencies. The news outlet claims a series of documents proof the telecom company has made millions selling information to the government

The news about AT&T’s ‘Project Hemisphere’ comes as the industry sees itself more and more wrapped in privacy scandals. Earlier this month, an investigation discovered Yahoo was live-feeding the NSA with user’s emails.

AT&T is in the middle of striking a deal to acquire the media giant Time Warner for $85 billion. Presumably, this would give even more power to AT&T as it slowly monopolizes the telecommunications industry in the United States.

What is AT&T’s ‘Hemisphere Project’?

AT&T’s infamous ‘Project Hemisphere’ has been part of the public record at least since 2013. Back then, The New York Times reported on the program as a “partnership” between the Drug Enforcement Administration and the company.

The venture was reportedly a joint effort between the government and the telecom giant to use AT&T’s networks as a weapon in the ongoing war on drugs. However, the article claims there is much more to Project Hemisphere and that it was born in 2007.

The company previously developed the Hancock programming language to mine its existing data records, and ‘Hemisphere’ was the next step to extend surveillance efforts to live calls and messages.

The Daily Beast has learned that AT&T manages to mine users’ data because it keeps records for longer than their competitors. Whereas Verizon and other companies store data records for a year and a half in average, AT&T has records that go all the way back to 2008.

How does AT&T profit from ‘Hemisphere Project’?

AT&T may have in fact started ‘Project Hemisphere’ as an initiative to fight drug crime, but then the company reportedly devised a way to profit from it.

Supposedly, AT&T sells the surveillance services of ‘Project Hemisphere’ to law enforcement agencies nationwide for a monthly fee. The Daily Beast claims some police units have paid up to $1 million per year for access to AT&T customers’ data feeds.

Company agents are the ones who carry out the actual data mining efforts for U.S. police. Officers or law enforcement workers are never in direct contact with AT&T’s database, according to the report.

‘Project Hemisphere’ has been instrumental in the uncovering of everything from murder cases to fraudulent schemes, going way beyond the anti-narcotics efforts.

Even though telecommunications companies are legally bound to hand over data if they have it, under no law are they required to institute surveillance programs on their customers. They are also not forced to charge for these efforts either.

Users on social media and several organizations who advocate for privacy rights have expressed their indignation at AT&T’s ‘Hemisphere Project.’ AT&T has not emitted an official statement yet.

Source: The Daily Beast