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United States AT&T Government Privacy

AT&T Maintains Call Database For the DEA Going Back To 1987 141

Posted by samzenpus
from the all-your-calls-are-belong-to-us dept.
Jah-Wren Ryel writes "Forget the NSA — the DEA has been working hand-in-hand with AT&T on a database of records of every call that passes through AT&T's phone switches going back as far as 1987. The government pays AT&T for contractors who sit side-by-side with DEA agents and do phone records searches for them. From the article: 'For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counter narcotics 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.'"
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AT&T Maintains Call Database For the DEA Going Back To 1987

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  • WTF??? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday September 02, 2013 @10:06AM (#44738323) Homepage Journal

    The article is behind a god damned paywall. This one isn't [go.com]. Google lists many, many sources.

    Does Jah-Wren Ryel work for the Times and is trying to increase subscription numbers? A link to a paywall is no citation whatever.

    Oh, and according to what I read, these aren't warrentless searches.

    • Re:WTF??? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Qzukk (229616) on Monday September 02, 2013 @10:25AM (#44738453) Journal

      Yeah, having a hard time raging at this. There's a difference between just giving every call ever to the government for the fun of it, and having an agent show up with papers in order, asking for the calls to/from a certain number and getting only that.

      • by tmosley (996283)
        That's great, except that all of our phone calls are still being recorded. This is something the Stasi could only DREAM of.
        • Re:WTF??? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by EmperorArthur (1113223) on Monday September 02, 2013 @11:15AM (#44738745)

          That's great, except that all of our phone calls are still being recorded. This is something the Stasi could only DREAM of.

          Read a little closer. This is the metadata that everyone is so worried about. It's not the actual conversation that's recorded, but the number called, call duration, and locations the cell phone was in for the duration of the call. The only new thing added to this list since the last half century is location data.

          The scary thing about this is AT&T never deletes your call data. EVER. There's a reason why some EU privacy directives have a retention limit [wsj.com]. Which is ironically in direct contrast to the mandatory retention policies for law enforcement use in those very same countries.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            "Read a little closer. This is the metadata that everyone is so worried about. It's not the actual conversation that's recorded, but the number called, call duration, and locations the cell phone was in for the duration of the call. The only new thing added to this list since the last half century is location data."

            We know that you called a local dealer 27 times in 89, 42 times in 95 an 17 times in 03, we busted him last week.
            So don't tell us you never touched that stuff.

          • Re:WTF??? (Score:4, Interesting)

            by msobkow (48369) on Monday September 02, 2013 @01:48PM (#44739763) Homepage Journal

            Back in the early-mid 1990s, I worked on a billing data collection system that was to be sold to the Australian and German telcos.

            The EBAF and SMDR data collected from the phone switches only includes the to/from phone numbers, the start time of the call, and the end time of the call. it's sufficient to do billing calculations, but absolutely does not include recordings of the calls themselves.

            Back then, of course, online storage was very expensive and computers were only in the 386 power range, so once billing was completed, the data was archived off to tape in case there were any billing discrepencies that had to be investigated in the future. It would seem those tapes were retained and loaded into the online systems that are feasible nowadays.

            Still, I am surprised that they bothered doing so -- it's not like they'd be willing to correct billing that far back. So it had to be done in response to law enforcement demands rather than because of any valid business need.

            • by msobkow (48369)

              Of course I'd also presume newer systems, especially cellular ones, have a lot more metadata than those old POTS systems did.

          • Re:WTF??? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by nbauman (624611) on Monday September 02, 2013 @02:24PM (#44740015) Homepage Journal

            This is the metadata that everyone is so worried about. It's not the actual conversation that's recorded, but the number called, call duration, and locations the cell phone was in for the duration of the call.

            That's a lot. It means they can track you everywhere you make a phone call. If I go to my girlfriend's house and make a call there, it means they know who my girlfriend is.

            It means that if I'm the (Democratic) governor of a state, and I call up an escort service, the (Republican) federal prosecutor will know about it, and he can decide whether to prosecute me or not, at his sole discretion. He can even agree not to prosecute me if I agree to step down from office, to be replaced by an ineffective successor.

          • by admdrew (782761)

            The scary thing about this is AT&T never deletes your call data. EVER.

            I used to work for MCI (and briefly Verizon Business after they bought us), and they did this as well. We had access to these archaic DB2 systems with a bazillion records going back to the 80s, with all the standard telco metadata. Our team used the recent data for calls through our IP relay (voice to text/text to voice service primarily intended for deaf people) system to help identify fraud users (the same Nigerian 419 scammers).

        • by BitZtream (692029)

          No, the calls aren't 'recorded'. These are essentially billing records. AT&T can't function without gathering and storing this information, it is in fact illegal for them NOT to gather this information and record ti because we, the people, have demanded that they keep this data so we can have accurate billing.

          You're ignorant and being ridiculous.

          • by bjwest (14070)

            I think if they haven't billed me for a call I made in 1987 yet, they can just suck it up. The accurate billing excuse can hold only for 6 months or so. A year at most. Anything else should be required by law to be deleted.

            • by Gr8Apes (679165)
              12 months sounds about right, after that, for a total of 7 years, max, they can retain the general billing information (there's some timeline, 7 I believe is the maximum?)
      • and having an agent show up with papers in order

        Now, if only that were a 4th Amendment warrant that was enforcing an enumerated power, it might even be legal.

      • Re:WTF??? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Monday September 02, 2013 @12:38PM (#44739265)

        There's a difference between just giving every call ever to the government for the fun of it, and having an agent show up with papers in order, asking for the calls to/from a certain number and getting only that.

        The NSA has a warrant for everything they do to. The problem is not the warrants, the problem is the existence of the database. It is begging for abuse, perhaps by the government, perhaps by AT&T, perhaps by criminals that have infiltrated either.

        The cali cartel set up their own version of this database [cocaine.org] in Colombia and used it to sniff out any of their people who were talking to law enforcement.

        • Warrants are only as good as the judges who issue them - the NSA makes use of FISA courts, which are really just rubber-stampers. In any case, if a warrant is ever denied, there's nothing to stop it just being reworded and applied for again in hope of a more sympathetic judge.

        • by nbauman (624611)

          The cali cartel set up their own version of this database [cocaine.org] in Colombia and used it to sniff out any of their people who were talking to law enforcement.

          Interesting. Hezbollah also used a cell phone database to track down informers. They searched for anomalies, such as cell phones that were only used for a short period of time or from specific locations. Apparently spies used dedicated cell phones to call their handlers.

          http://seattletimes.com/html/politics/2016817370_apushezbollahcia.html [seattletimes.com]
          Hezbollah unravels CIA spy network in Lebanon

          Backed by Iran, Hezbollah has built a professional counterintelligence apparatus that Nasrallah - whom the U.S. government des

        • Warrants come from a judge, not the executive branch of the US government. A NSA letter is not a warrant.
      • What? Just because some D.E.A. Nimrod shows up with crap from a warrant mill in the basement of some D.C. government office building we should all just bend over. Go ahead, tell me that we don't have judges that rubber stamp piles of paper every day...

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Oh, and according to what I read, these aren't warrentless searches.

      That is usually what "with subpoenas" means. Which makes me wonder. If there's been a paper trail of this leading all the way back to 1987, why are we only just now hearing about it?

      • Re:WTF??? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Monday September 02, 2013 @11:00AM (#44738675)

        If there's been a paper trail of this leading all the way back to 1987, why are we only just now hearing about it?

        Because it is no big deal. The DEA had proper judicial oversight, and only saw records of specific individuals, and only when they had sufficient probable cause to get a subpoena. It is the way the system is supposed to work, and is the way it should have worked with the NSA. What you should be outraged about is the very existence of the DEA, a government agency devoted to monitoring and controlling our bodily fluids. Once you get past that, worrying about a few phone records is pretty silly.

        • Re:WTF??? (Score:5, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 02, 2013 @11:20AM (#44738781)

          If there's been a paper trail of this leading all the way back to 1987, why are we only just now hearing about it?

          Because it is no big deal. The DEA had proper judicial oversight,

          "Administrative subpoena" == NO judicial oversight, not even by a judge's clerk. The term is newspeak, deliberately chosen to induce exactly the misunderstanding you had.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Agreed, it's surveillance when they record your actions, not when then get a warrant to take a look at that recording (or in the case of the NSA click a checkbox and fucking lie to Congress about getting a warrant).

          It's no different than if they stuck a GPS tracker on you, just in case they wanted to serve a warrant on you in future to get your GPS location.

          Come to think of it, the phone records now include your location, so its exactly identical.

          Fucking mass surveillance. They got away with it, because it

        • by Anonymous Coward

          "Because it is no big deal. The DEA had proper judicial oversight, and only saw records of specific individuals, and only when they had sufficient probable cause to get a subpoena. It is the way the system is supposed to work,"

          What? Preemptively covering all communications of a 25 year old dope dealer since the day he was born?
          And everybody who ever called him from the age of 5 is a possible user, flagged in the database?
          Cross-referenced with all other 25 year old dealers?

          Way to go.

        • Re:WTF??? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Monday September 02, 2013 @12:44PM (#44739299)

          and only when they had sufficient probable cause to get a subpoena.

          If by sufficient you mean none at all.

          "Probable cause is not a prerequisite to the issuance of a subpoena." [justice.gov]

        • by 0111 1110 (518466)

          Because it is no big deal. The DEA had proper judicial oversight, and only saw records of specific individuals, and only when they had sufficient probable cause to get a subpoena. It is the way the system is supposed to work, and is the way it should have worked with the NSA.

          From the article:

          Crucially, they said, the phone data is stored by AT&T, and not by the government as in the N.S.A. program. It is queried for phone numbers of interest mainly using what are called "administrative subpoenas," those issued not by a grand jury or a judge but by a federal agency, in this case the D.E.A.

          So the DEA issues their own "warrants" making a mockery of the whole idea.

      • by AHuxley (892839)
        The mid 1980's where a fun time in US computer history, US domestic needs and digital file tracking.
        You had the Church report so no domestic operation/unit/task force really ever wanted any unique keywords used again.
        You also had an interesting funding mix and database upgrades - many connecting to each other for the first time or been able to be searched via a network and the results combined - cases/city/state/federal/telco.
        The results where hinted at in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Core [wikipedia.org]
        http://c [consortiumnews.com]
      • From the TFA:

        Crucially, they said, the phone data is stored by AT&T, and not by the government as in the N.S.A. program. It is queried for phone numbers of interest mainly using what are called “administrative subpoenas,” those issued not by a grand jury or a judge but by a federal agency, in this case the D.E.A.

        Sounds like they get everything they want without much review...

    • Re:WTF??? (Score:5, Informative)

      by AHuxley (892839) on Monday September 02, 2013 @10:37AM (#44738529) Homepage Journal
      Welcome to the Hemisphere Project (a term not found in many "official documents" it seems:
      Every call that passes through a switch is covered ie not just one teclo's customers.
      All the call data ie the classic pen register seems to be collected at the rate "four billion call records are added to the database every day".
      The locations of callers is also logged.
      The data is not stored by the US gov ie telco employees work on the system ie as "private data".
      All done under friendly administrative warrants -ie courts??? judges???
      Basically it is what many have hinted at - total mastery of all US calls via one telco.
      • )

        // it still won't parse or compile but for the love of all that is sane, please always close your parens. thx
      • Corporations only fight the government when they get paid to do so. This is just another way for corporations to monetize their assets, by selling access to the government.
    • Re:WTF??? (Score:5, Informative)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday September 02, 2013 @10:41AM (#44738543) Journal
      The slide deck [documentcloud.org] is available.

      Aside from the 'WTF is AT&T doing with over a quarter-century of phone records that would justify the cost of storing them, anyway?' angle, there are a few... concerning... elements.

      1. The searches aren't "warrantless" in the strictest sense; but apparently most of them occur by the process of 'administrative subpoena', which requires no judicial oversight. The DEA has the power to get one simply by asserting that it needs one because drugs. (Sections 506 and 507 of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 [gpo.gov]). Given that the features of the program include turnaround times of an hour or less, barring atypically complex queries, there is clearly very limited review going on. It isn't the DEA running raw SQL queries; but the separation between it being the 'DEA's database' and 'AT&T's database' appears to be fairly limited.

      2. Pretty much everything in the section of the presentation entitled "Protecting The Program"(starts on page 8): The program is 'unclassified' but "All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document" and there are specific instructions on how to conceal Hemisphere as the source in an investigation by using it first, to guide further subpoenas, and then retroactively building a case only on the subsequent subpoenas, in order to conceal, from the court and everyone else, the role of Hemisphere. As they describe the process:

      When a complete set of CDRs are subpoenaed from the carrier, then all memorialized references to relevant and pertinent calls can be attributed to the carrier’s records, thus “walling off” the information obtained from Hemisphere. In other words, Hemisphere can easily be protected if it is used as a pointer system to uncover relevant numbers.

      In special cases, we realize that it might not be possible to obtain subpoenaed phone records that will “wall off” Hemisphere.

      In these special circumstances, the Hemisphere analyst should be contacted immediately. The analyst will work with the investigator and request a separate subpoena to AT&T

      This practice of evidence laundering would appear to be very similar to the "Parallel Construction [reuters.com]" process described as in use by the DEA for other giant secretive data sources (with 'Parallel Construction' being the term for "recreating" a fictional chain of evidence that excludes the existence of sensitive data sources. Less friendly audiences might call this 'perjury'...)
      • by thsths (31372)

        > This practice of evidence laundering would appear to be very similar to the "Parallel Construction [reuters.com]" process described as in use by the DEA for other giant secretive data sources (with 'Parallel Construction' being the term for "recreating" a fictional chain of evidence that excludes the existence of sensitive data sources. Less friendly audiences might call this 'perjury'...)

        Exactly, and that is what most worries me about it. It is lying to the court by omission - so it is not clear at al

    • Re:WTF??? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Monday September 02, 2013 @12:33PM (#44739235)

      Does Jah-Wren Ryel work for the Times and is trying to increase subscription numbers? A link to a paywall is no citation whatever.

      I use a combination of plugins that have the side-effect of making most paywalls disappear, I don't even know it is there.
      I recommend you do it too:

      CookieSaver Lite [mozilla.org] - Set to block the NYTimes cookies
      RefControl [mozilla.org] - Set to spoof the referrer when reading all NYTimes pages as "http://google.com/"
      NoScript [noscript.net] - The NY Times does not need javascript for most pages. This may be optional for the NY Times but there are some paywalls like foreignpolicy.com that do rely on javascript.

      FYI - the NY Times article is the definitive citation as they are the ones who broke the story.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Thanks for the info, but I don't want paywalled sites to get my eyeballs. The Illinois Times manages to give away paper copies as well as their online version and still make money, why can't the Times? They certainly have a much larger readership.

        • Thanks for the info, but I don't want paywalled sites to get my eyeballs.

          If your goal is not to give any traffic to paywalled sites then that's not enough. You'll have to get a plugin that blocks access to a list of websites and then add the paywalls to that list.

          That is because most big name paywalls are deliberately porous, so you will never know if you are reading an article at a paywall site that just happened to let you through this time. Those plugins I mentioned are mainly for increasing privacy while browsing, they just have the side-effect of making paywalls think you

          • by mcgrew (92797) *

            There is one site I visit that has occasional stories paywalled, the local paper here. Most info isn't likely elsewhere and the paywalls are trivial to overcome. But I generally avoid them. I'm thinking about a simple HOSTS file to send DNS requests to those sites to the bit bucket.

    • From the article:

      "It is queried for phone numbers of interest mainly using what are called “administrative subpoenas,” those issued not by a grand jury or a judge but by a federal agency, in this case the D.E.A."

      So the DEA agents themselves decide to have AT&T pull your phone records.

    • by nbauman (624611)

      You call yourself a nerd?

      If you can't figure out a way to get past the NYT payroll, you're through. Turn in your propeller beanie. And your pocket protector.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        I'm not interested in getting past an NYT paywall when there are non-offensive sources of the same information.

    • by stenvar (2789879)

      A link to a paywall is no citation whatever.

      Yes it is:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citation [wikipedia.org]

  • Disclaimer (Score:5, Insightful)

    by amiga3D (567632) on Monday September 02, 2013 @10:13AM (#44738371)

    I think there is a simple solution for this. All phones sold should have a written disclaimer stamped on the case that reads "All calls are monitored for possible criminal activity and any other reason the authorities may deem necessary." I can't believe anyone thinks there is any privacy left on any public communications system.

    • Re:Disclaimer (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday September 02, 2013 @10:43AM (#44738569) Journal
      In other news, an ample supply of white flags is a cheap and effective national defense strategy...
      • by Anonymous Coward

        In other news, an ample supply of white flags is a cheap and effective national defense strategy...

        Hmmm, doesn't seem to work too well for the French.

    • Not only that, but actually current cell-site data for any phone is publicly available for a small fee [numberport...lookup.com] (1 cent). The GSM Home Location Register is a worldwide database which all carriers need access to for roaming to work, the fact that somehow some companies are able to sell access to it perhaps should not really surprise anyone. What you get back are cell tower IDs, not co-ordinates, but I guess it may be possible to build a map of tower IDs to physical locations (or obtain one) if you're determined enoug

    • " I can't believe anyone thinks there is any privacy left on any public communications system."

      Probably because they aren't public communications systems.

  • by Rob the Bold (788862) on Monday September 02, 2013 @10:21AM (#44738425)

    'For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counter narcotics 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 that, NSA? Somehow the DEA managed to use the ordinary justice system without totally dismantling the Constitution.

    Not that I think the War on Drugs (TM) is any less stupid and wasteful than the War on Terrism (TM), but at least we see that we don't need a parallel, secret justice [sic] system to "fight" it.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Crucially, they said, the phone data is stored by AT&T, and not by the government as in the N.S.A. program. It is queried for phone numbers of interest mainly using what are called “administrative subpoenas,” those issued not by a grand jury or a judge but by a federal agency, in this case the D.E.A.

      The "ordinary justice system" involves judges in determining whether subpoenas apply. As I understand it, this seems to bypass the usual checks and balances by allowing the would-be prosecutor

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 02, 2013 @10:36AM (#44738523)

      They are administrative subpoenas, issued by the DEA, and never seen by a judge or a grand jury. These shouldn't be constitutional either.

      • There are some important differences between what this is and what the NSA is doing. Probably the most important is that the DEA doesn't have a 'general warrant', that is permission to vacuum up ALL the call detail records.

        The 4th amendment was put in place in large part because of a reaction against general warrants issued by the British Crown.

        Wikipedia:

        The Fourth Amendment (Amendment IV) is an amendment to the United States Constitution and part of the Bill of Rights. It prohibits unreasonable searches an

        • You couldn't be, or shouldn't be, this ignorant. Even your "source"(while Wikipedia may present accurate data on average, Wikipedia is a failure of a source given that alterations are open to anyone(registration isn't controlled, and that is all which is required to alter, add, or delete) and accuracy of data isn't verified in all cases) contradicts your statement. There is no difference between what the DEA and NSA are doing.

          Unless a warrant is based on probable cause, and issued by judge(magistrate, circu

          • Exactly where do you even attempt to make an argument? A couple of ad hominem attacks and a obvious basic lack of understanding of history is your response?

            How about citing a source for facts supporting your view?

            Here's another citation from the EFF supporting mine.

            https://www.eff.org/files/filenode/att/generalwarrantsmemo.pdf [eff.org]

            Basically it's quite obvious you have no idea what you are talking about, or how to make an argument. And you call others ignorant?

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Not that I think the War on Drugs (TM) is any less stupid and wasteful than the War on Terrism (TM), but at least we see that we don't need a parallel, secret justice [sic] system to "fight" it.

      Both are drains on the treasury and both are harmful to society. The "war" on terror castrates the constitution, and the drug laws foster violent crime. Look at Chicago in the 1920s [virginia.edu] and Chicago today. Different illegal drug, same outcomes.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Please read the article further. Your statement is far from correct:

      ... "administrative subpoenas," those issued not by a grand jury or a judge but by a federal agency, in this case the D.E.A.

    • by AHuxley (892839)
      Depends on what skilled US lawyers make of the massive private storage, employees sitting with gov agents and the term 'administrative subpoenas'.
      Tracking 'the' person over every/any network would be just fine.
      Some ongoing massive database of people who have done nothing wrong other than use a US phone... waiting for that administrative subpoena to fish a tiny subset of data out.
    • by Type44Q (1233630)

      we don't need a parallel, secret justice [sic] system

      We? There is no "we." You clearly don't need one. Somebody clearly does.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    War on drugs, war on terror: just scare tactics used to get us to accept a police / surveillance state.

    What do you do when the cure is worse than the poison?

    • My point exactly. If fighting drug use with the criminal justice system requires that America turn into a fascist police state...then it's not worth it.

      Whatever the scourge of drug use, I put it that the fascist police state has caused far more damage to the country than the drugs themselves ever could.

      • Alcohol kills more people than all other drugs combined. If we are OK with the worst drug in existence being legally available, then why are we worried about the rest?
        • by ulatekh (775985)

          It's my understanding that drug prohibition started after alcohol prohibition for three main reasons:

          1. As a jobs program for Prohibition officers
          2. To prevent hemp paper from becoming a big competitor to wood-based paper
          3. Because marijuana made black people violent and white soldiers pacifist

          I didn't say they were good reasons...

  • Would love to hear story about how they lost the records from before 1987

  • Don't forget those are record and available to the government from the beginning of time too...

    What you buy today legally and innocently may get you a call from the FBI 5 years later to ask you a few questions. ( i have personally seen this happen )

    The moral is that *anything* we do with a commercial provider can and will be recorded. Even if is for honest and non invasive reasons today, that doesn't mean it wont be used different ways by other people decades later.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Look, it's not a constitutional issue, the government isn't doing this at all. The government is paying someone else to do it, which is completely different.

    "Bob Smith? Bob never worked here. I've got last year's 1099 we gave him to prove it."

  • by Dcnjoe60 (682885) on Monday September 02, 2013 @11:45AM (#44738947)

    Authoritarian Tattle Tales, that's what.

  • Someone needs to do a parody of the AT&T "You will" commercials: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MnQ8EkwXJ0 [youtube.com]

    Except instead of the original script, have it go something like:

    "Have you ever tapped someone's phone...without leaving your desk? Or downloaded their entire call history at the touch of a button?...You will - and the company that will bring it to you: AT&T."

  • Fuck you to anyone brushing this off . Apparently you haven't been keeping current with the analyses done that show just exactly what information meta-data can reveal.

    No one supposed that ALL DOMESTIC CALLS' meta data was being recorded for and kept forever. What can be inferred about the activities of political candidates, corporate activities, activists of every persuasion, etc etc is incredible. This is what's been happening since the 80s? Really?

    There is a ocean of difference between asking for so calle

  • The NSA had a copy of this one from the beginning, too.

Nobody said computers were going to be polite.

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