In the midst of the NSA debate, an even bigger invasion of American privacy is being overlooked. Since 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration, acting under "Project Hemisphere," has been accessing personal cell phone records in order to trace criminals. It has amassed a massive database of all calls since that have gone through AT&T since 1987, adding approximately 4 billion calls to this collection each day.
Until recently, when a DEA PowerPoint presentation describing the project was leaked, Hemisphere's actions had been completely concealed; those involved in Project Hemisphere are forbidden to refer to it in any official document, and the origins of all information obtained through this project have been kept secret from attorneys, judges, and, of course, the public.
In early September, the ACLU, along with about 20 other groups, sent a letter requesting Congress to hold hearings on the DEA because of Project Hemisphere. Considering the damage this program has done to American society, it's absolutely necessary that the DEA be held accountable.
Yes, Hemisphere has been somewhat effective -- it has provided the government with a way to trace "burner" phones, pre-paid cell phones that are only used for a brief period of time, often in order to escape surveillance. The DEA even provides several "success stories" in the leaked Hemisphere PowerPoint, cases in which criminals investigated by the project were convicted.
But the obvious violations of the Constitution and the despicable undermining of the American public are in no way justified by a handful of such "success stories."
Remember that unlike the NSA, which deals with issues of national security, Project Hemisphere generally deals with common, day-to-day, albeit unfortunate, crime. Since the DEA is behind Hemisphere, it follows that 90 percent of the crimes it investigates are drug related.
The implications of using these super secretive, never mind unconstitutional, methods to investigate "typical" crime are terrifying. It's a slap in the face to due process; the DEA has lied about how information received through Hemisphere has been obtained, and it's often impossible to tell when an investigation began. Hemisphere operates with no judicial oversight. How is it possible to conduct a fair trial when crucial evidence is fabricated? Hemisphere is a tool the government can use to completely disregard process.
This project renders our legal system meaningless: the U.S. government operates like a police state without its citizens even knowing.
Even more troubling are the privacy violations. If seizing 4 billion private phone calls a day doesn't qualify as "unreasonable," then I don't know what does. This entire operation is a tremendous violation of Fourth Amendment rights for any American who has made a phone call to or from an AT&T device.
That's why Project Hemisphere has been so secret; as Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the ACLU stated, "I'd speculate that one reason for the secrecy of the program is that it would be very hard to justify to the public or the courts."
Hemisphere completely disregards the principles that are so valued by the American people.
Attempts to defend Project Hemisphere are pathetic.
Brian Fallon, representing the justice department, emphasized that the phone records are maintained by AT&T, not the government; though actual phone call data may still belong to AT&T, the government has full access and use of it, rendering this distinction irrelevant.
Even just looking at these measures as an advanced crime fighting strategy is shaky. It's hard to reconcile millions of Americans having intimate records of their lives made accessible to make a relatively few arrests.
Furthermore, the vast, vast majority of crimes investigated under Project Hemisphere are drug related. The War on Drugs at this point is a known failure; our own attorney general called for it to be scaled back. This is not a case of the DEA wanting to better society, it's a case of it wanting more control.
And finally, the cynical cries of "don't do anything illegal, and you won't have anything to worry about" do nothing but enable more privacy abuses in the future. Information is sacrosanct. Why do we accept that anyone can access ours so freely? It's not prerequisite for a person to break any laws for her to undergo strict surveillance or be labeled a threat. With so much sensitive information on hand, the potential for government abuse is limitless.
Where do we draw the line between liberty and safety? Even using national security as a stopping point is widely controversial. For us to allow smaller scale crime to be traced in this manner is completely overboard and paints a bleak picture for privacy the future.
It's unacceptable for the U.S. government to undermine it's own people in the name of justice. Project Hemisphere must be shut down, and the DEA held responsible for its actions.