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Secret Phone Surveillance Program Has Been Spying On Millions Of Americans For A Decade

By CM Chaney · November 25, 2023

In brief…

  • Secret AT&T program called DAS monitors call records of millions of customers
  • Conducts "chain analysis", targeting not just suspects but anyone they contact
  • Operates without oversight, ignores surveillance reforms passed in 2015
  • Funded by White House drug policy office, resisted exposure through legal claims
A secret AT&T phone surveillance program has been monitoring millions of customers for over a decade, using a controversial technique called chain analysis and avoiding oversight.  Hassan OUAJBIR / Unsplash

A secretive phone surveillance program called Data Analytical Services (DAS) has been monitoring the call records of millions of AT&T customers for over a decade without their knowledge or consent, according to documents obtained by WIRED magazine.

The program, formerly known as Hemisphere, conducts “chain analysis” - targeting not only those speaking directly with criminal suspects but also anyone those individuals contact. This means even innocent Americans unconnected to crimes may have their records collected.

“The program allows law enforcement agencies to access the records of any calls that use AT&T’s infrastructure,” the report states. These records include “phone numbers, dates, times, durations and locations of the calls” and subscriber names and addresses.

All of this is occurring without judicial oversight or public accountability. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a privacy advocate, calls it a violation of the Fourth Amendment “which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.” He has urged the attorney general to investigate.

The program also contradicts reforms passed in 2015 to end bulk data collection by the NSA, requiring court orders to obtain records. But the DAS program ignores this by voluntarily providing data to law enforcement.

AT&T defends its actions by saying “it is required by law to comply with a lawful subpoena.” However, no law compels the long-term storage of decades of records.

DAS is funded by the White House Drug Control Policy Office (ONDCP) through its High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. This targets regions with high drug trade. Funding has waxed and waned under recent administrations but continues today under President Biden.

Lawsuits and records requests have tried unsuccessfully to expose DAS. But it has avoided them through “claiming that the phone records are owned by AT&T, not by the government,” the report states. It also cites trade secret and law enforcement privileges.

So while some encryption apps or internet-based communication may provide citizens with alternatives, everyday cell phone use remains deeply compromised by surveillance - with subscribers none the wiser.