US Senator Ron Wyden is taking a stand for transparency by urging the Justice Department to release information regarding the Hemisphere phone surveillance program. This covert program, which has been collecting phone records since 1987, gives law enforcement agencies access to trillions of domestic phone records. Wyden is calling for more transparency and oversight, as well as raising concerns about the legality and privacy implications of the program.
The Hemisphere project was initially brought to light in 2013 when it was revealed that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was paying AT&T to mine and retain records of its customers’ phone calls. The program continues to grow, with four billion new records being added to its database every day. Law enforcement agencies have the ability to request “often-warrantless searches” of these records, raising serious concerns about the invasion of privacy and civil liberties.
One of the most alarming aspects of the Hemisphere program is its ease of access. Any law enforcement officer can submit a request to a single AT&T analyst located in Atlanta, Georgia, regardless of whether the information sought is related to a drug case. This access allows law enforcement to not only identify specific numbers but also obtain location data and access the phone records of everyone in communication with the target. The depth and scope of this surveillance are deeply concerning and raise serious questions about the potential abuse of power and violations of privacy.
Additionally, the funding and oversight of the Hemisphere program have been shrouded in secrecy. The program has been defunded and refunded by the government multiple times over the past decade and has received federal funding under the name “Data Analytical Services (DAS).” This funding route allows the program to bypass mandatory privacy impact assessments, which are typically conducted by the Department of Justice for projects funded by federal agencies. The lack of oversight and transparency is deeply troubling and undermines the public’s ability to hold these surveillance programs accountable.
In 2019, the Department of Justice provided Wyden’s office with “dozens of pages of material” related to the project, but these materials were labeled as “Law Enforcement Sensitive” and could not be released to the public. This lack of transparency and the classification of materials related to a program that has been acknowledged in federal court is deeply concerning. Wyden has emphasized the importance of informed public debate and the need to balance government secrecy with the public interest in oversight and accountability.
“I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the materials provided by the DOJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress,” Wyden wrote in his letter. “While I have long defended the government’s need to protect classified sources and methods, this surveillance program is not classified, and its existence has already been acknowledged by the DOJ in federal court. The public interest in an informed debate about government surveillance far outweighs the need to keep this information secret.”
Wyden’s efforts to shed light on the Hemisphere program are a crucial step towards ensuring transparency, oversight, and accountability in government surveillance. In a time of rapidly evolving technology and the potential for widespread surveillance, it is more important than ever to uphold the principles of privacy and civil liberties. The public deserves to know the extent and implications of programs like Hemisphere, and Wyden’s advocacy for transparency is a step in the right direction.