Yet Another Creepy Form of Government Surveillance

Another part of the massive government surveillance program that was revealed in 2013 (although not by Snowden) is called Hemisphere. Hemisphere is faintly similar to other cases of government overreach in criminal cases, as, although the premise behind the Hemisphere program was to track the movements of drug dealers, things went further.

As Catherine Crum writes in Slate’s Future Tense: 

“According to the Times, the government pays AT&T to embed its employees within anti-narcotics units, and these employees then conduct phone records searches at the government’s behest. This enables the government to obtain records from a vast AT&T database of Americans’ phone calls. The database stretches back 26 years, and 4 billion records are added every day.”

This is slightly similar to the case of United States v. Jones, which was brought before the Supreme Court due to police officers illegally placing a GPS tracking device on Jones’ car. The basis behind that case leading to a non-decision rested with the notion that yes, while we submit ourselves to observation in public, we do not submit ourselves to near constant surveillance or surveillance in the aggregate (Gray and Keats 2013). Due to this, Justice Ginsburg ruled that this amounted to a Fourth Amendment search, which made all of the data the police collected on Jones not permissible in court (Gray and Keats 2013).

The Hemisphere program and its use of AT&T’s database leads to a dragnet of data collection, pulling one into the scope of surveillance based only on the government digging around to find useful information regarding narcotics. This is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which is supposed to protect citizens from unlawful searches.

The most telling aspect of the illegality of the Hemisphere program is the fact that the government has been extremely secretive about it, to the point of telling agents to not use the name in documents. And now the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed an amicus brief to force the government’s hand in admitting it used the potentially unconstitutional Hemisphere program in tracking down drug dealers in the United States v. Diaz-Rivera case. 

In that case, the government only had legal authorization to collect data from 52 phones, yet they ended up collecting data from 643 phones. Such a discrepancy could not have been done by accident. This unwittingly brings in hundreds of cases of unwarranted surveillance, a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment. They are also violations of the Stored Communications Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which aim “to regulate the process by which the government acquires private communications during investigations” (Grimmelmann). While it could be argued that metadata is not communications, metadata in aggregate can create a larger picture that can reveal just as much as these “private communications”.