A magistrate judge has ordered the federal government to turn over hundreds of pages of information about a super-secret spy-on-Americans program that is run by AT&T called Hemisphere.
WND reported only days earlier how shareholders in the communications company were concerned enough about the controversial program to prepare a resolution for the company’s coming annual meeting calling for an investigation and report.
And that had followed a report when privacy experts asked AT&T to shut down the program that has been called “Google on steroids” for accessing “trillions” of records when it is rented out to police agencies and others.
Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the groups fighting the use of private call information in the program, says the judge, Maria-Elena James, has found the federal government hasn’t justified its “excessive secrecy” about the telephone surveillance effort.
“As a result, the federal government must submit roughly 260 pages of previously withheld or heavily redacted records to the court so that it can review them and decide whether to make more information about Hemisphere public,” EFF reported.
The program is run by AT&T in conjunction with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. It allows police almost real-time access to telephone call detail records.
AT&T has imposed requirements on police to conceal the program from the public, and it raises questions about First and Fourth Amendment protections, EFF said.
The recent court hearing was over documents the government was declining to disclose to EFF, which had filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
But James, who is in the federal court system in Northern California, said some of the records in question “did not qualify for protection under FOIA’s Exemption 5,” which protects attorney-client communications and the like.
“The court also ruled that even though the government showed other documents were eligible for protection under Exemption 5, it had failed to provide enough information to justify withholding the record,” the organization said.
The ruling also said government claims that releasing the records would interfere with law enforcement investigations was unsupported by evidence.
“The court also rejected claims that the names of telecommunications companies involved in Hemisphere could be withheld on grounds that they were confidential law enforcement informants,” EFF said.
The judge ordered hundreds of pages to be submitted to the court by the government, for review by the judge to determine when they need to be released or not.
EFF explained earlier: “Police refer to Hemisphere as a ‘Super Search Engine,” and ‘Google on steroids’ because it provides access to trillions of domestic and international phone call records dating back 30 years. Each day, approximately four billion phone records are added to the system, including calls from non-AT&T customers that pass through the company’s switches and even when a customer changes phone numbers.
“Hemisphere can also map social relationships and pinpoint locations of callers,” EFF said.
EFF pointed out that because of the company’s cooperation – it actually sells access to the data – law enforcement officials can get the details without going through a judge, and then the company imposes strict requirements to keep the program secret.
“AT&T and the police tried to keep Hemisphere secret. They failed,” wrote Adam Schwartz on the website for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“The time has come to end the Hemisphere program. As a matter of constitutional law and basic privacy principals, the police should not be allowed, without case-by-case judicial oversight, to scrutinize our social relationships with a database of trillions of phone records.”
Privacy groups previously have complained about analysis of individuals’ telephone records, which can reveal personal details such as appointments at Planned Parenthood or calls to a local political party or a psychiatrist.
The New York Times exposed the Hemisphere program in 2013, and EFF later sued state and federal law enforcement agencies for more details.