Tuesday, September 03, 2013

With AT&T's 'Hemisphere' program, formerly 'Hudson Hawk,' high-dollar phone surveillance goes local

Several readers forwarded me a link to a New York Times story titled, "Drug agents use vast phone trove eclipsing N.S.A.'s." Here's the lede: "For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counternarcotics program have had routine access, using subpoenas, to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of Americans’ phone calls — parallel to but covering a far longer time than the National Security Agency’s hotly disputed collection of phone call logs." See more coverage from The Daily Dot, and AP's synopsis.

AT&T's records supposedly go back 26 years. In Europe there's a vigorous debate in electronic privacy circles over the "right to be forgotten," which to my surprise has never really caught on in the U.S. the way one might expect. But that concept springs to mind here. God help me, who knows what my phone records from 26 years ago might show?! I'm not surprised the DEA accessed these records. But I'm disappointed that AT&T kept them that long, apparently at the behest/direction of law enforcement. There's SCOTUS' "Third Party Doctrine" in action for you!

Local Texas agencies, at least in Houston and  likely elsewhere, also accessed the Operation Hemisphere database. Chris Soghoian tweeted out several; links with references to local agencies potentially using this "Hemisphere" database. One Harris County Commissioners Court agenda dated January 25, 2013 (pdf) included item 12(f) approving as a sole source, no-bid contract, "AT&T in the amount of $373,795 sole source for Operation Hemisphere investigative services for the Sheriff’s Department for the period ending June 30, 2013." And on a February 4, 2011 agenda item 10(a) under "19(c) Purchasing," included, "Request for approval of sole source (a) AT&T sole source for Operation Hemisphere, formerly Hudson Hawk, investigative services for the Sheriff's Department in the amount of $924,500."

Another agenda dated Jan. 20, 2012 included item 19(c)3 which read, "Accept High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Grant funds in the additional amount of $666,667 from the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the Houston Intelligence Support Center – Operation Hemisphere Initiative."  And what is the Houston Intelligence Support Center? Best I can tell, it's the Houston Regional Intelligence Service Center, one of many "fusion centers" that cropped up post 9/11. How are they utilizing the Hemisphere database? With whom are they sharing the information? Your guess is as good as mine. What we do know is that, including the fusion center money (which came from a federal grant), those three payments alone total $1,964,962 that the Harris County commissioners court spent on this one surveillance tool between 2011 and 2013 (so far). That's a big sum any way you look at it.

Grits has not covered the NSA metadata scandals extensively, as much as they intrigue me. Keeping this blog tightly focused on Texas criminal justice helps keep the task from getting utterly out of hand. But the Hemisphere program - especially if it turns out that other Texas counties or cities paid AT&T to participate, starts to get closer to this blog's wheelhouse. Lots of state and local-level questions here: For starters, which agencies use Hemisphere? Journalists should be checking old city council and commissioners court agendas to see who else has been paying AT&T for its "Hemisphere" service, or its predecessor, "Hudson Hawk." Houston reporters already have sufficient material to localize this story. I'll bet they're not the only Texas media market where that's possible.

MORE: From Mark Bennett, Scott Greenfield,


Anonymous said...

This is why I have ALWAYS gotten phone & utility service using a fake name and identifiers for the past 20 yrs. People thought I was being paranoid, but I always try to use fake information whenever I can.

Anonymous said...

You are dreaming if you think that the liberal Houston media will run with any story that slams the Democrat Sheriff Adrian Garcia. Besides, any deputies that are assigned to HIDTA, ICE, or FBI are indeed Junior G-Men with full Federal authority and protection. The Sheriff has no clue what they do every day, he just signs their pay check

Anonymous said...

Stupid taxpayers will fund anything if you scare the shit out them. False sense of security is a mofo.