REVEALED: Secret program gives federal agents nearly instant access to BILLIONS of AT&T phone records without a court order

  • Hemisphere program allows federal agents  to access details on rolling database of 4billion calls a day that are process  through AT&T switches
  • Secret program in place since 2007  includes records dating back to 1987
  • Federal agents can issue ‘administrative  subpoena’ and AT&T employees will supply call time, location and phone  numbers in minutes
  • Database is much more expansive than NSA  database leaked by Edward Snowden
  • Program is run by the Drug Enforcement  Administration and meant to catch drug traffickers

By  Michael Zennie

PUBLISHED: 01:59 EST, 2  September 2013 |  UPDATED: 12:21 EST, 2 September 2013

A secret government program called Hemisphere  gives federal agents nearly instantaneous access to billions of AT&T phone  records dating as far back as 1987, all without a court order or the oversight  of a judge, it was revealed today.

It’s a spying database that dwarfs anything  built by the National Security Agency to date – and federal agents have routine  access to it to conduct criminal investigations.

The AT&T database contains the location,  time, phone number and other metadata from every phone call that crosses the  AT&T relay switches – an estimated 4billion calls a day. Because the  database captures any call that travels across the company’s lines, calls made  by users of other carriers are also included.

Since 2007, federal agents have been able to  access the trove of information in minutes – simply by issuing a subpoena. It  appears little or no judicial oversight governs the access to this  information.

Hemisphere is not classified - but it was secret for nearly five years. It is run by the Drug Enforcement Administration


Hemisphere is not classified – but it was secret for  nearly five years. It is run by the Drug Enforcement Administration


Hemisphere is not related to any of the  National Security Agency spying programs that were revealed by  whistle-blower  Edward Snowden.

Rather, it is run by law enforcement – primarily the Drug Enforcement Administration. Its stated purpose  is help  investigate drug traffickers and other complex criminal  enterprises. However,  it has also been used to arrest jewelry store  robbers, a murder suspect and  even a woman who was making nuisance bomb  threats.

Since the program began six years  ago, the  government has retrieved information 4,400 times from the  database – obtaining  data on 11,200 phone numbers. That’s at least twice a day, on  average.

The government pays AT&T employees to work alongside federal agents. They have direct access to the database and it  is their job to retrieve the information from the company files and hand it over  to federal investigators.

The company will hand over the data with only  an ‘administrative subpoena’ issued by  the law enforcement agency. It often  does not require a court order.

The program is not classified – just ‘law  enforcement sensitive.’ However, the New York Times reports that there  have been no Congressional hearings, nor news reports about Hemisphere since it  was adopted six years ago.

The program is meant to help track drug organizations that use disposable 'burner' phones and frequently change numbers 

The program is meant to help track drug organizations  that use disposable ‘burner’ phones and frequently change numbers


Drew Hendricks, an anti-war activist from  Port Hadlock, Washington, received a PowerPoint presntation detailing the  program as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

The program is designed to give the  federal  government fast and direct access to a detailed, expansive  AT&T call  database – though it uses AT&T employees as an  intermediary. An employee of  the communications giant is always the one  to access the company logs – not a  federal agent.

Names are not attached to the call  information stored in the database.  However, last year AT&T began  cross-referencing other databases to  hand over the names of any of its  subscribers who match the numbers  being targeted.

Records go back more than two and a half  decades to 1987.

The Times reports that in many cases, no  court order or grand jury subpoena is needed to receive these  records – meaning  that checks and balances on the process are limited or even non-existent.

Hemisphere operates out of three offices –  Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta. It is based in Los Angeles.

Hemisphere is meant to help law enforcement  agencies track suspects and criminal enterprises who  frequently change phones –  using disposable ‘burners’ phones to acquire  new numbers every few days or  weeks.


Call activity logs also allow federal agents  pinpoint which numbers a suspect is calling to help them outline the various  parts of a criminal enterprise.

In 2011, the program helped with a bust that  seized 136 kilograms of cocaine, one ton of marijuana and ‘really pissed off the  Hells Angels in Canada.’

It’s also been used to crack smaller-scale  crimes, including the 2012 bust of a robbery ring that targeted jewelry stores,  the arrest of a man on charges he murdered a bar bouncer in Rondo Beach,  California.

This February, the program was used to help  arrest a South Carolina woman who called in 30 bomb threats to schools,  hospitals, banks and government offices in South Carolina.

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Categories: Cyber Security, Intelligence Gathering

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