Inquirer Editorial: Data trolling violates rights

A Drug Enforcement Administration agent making an arrest in New York City.
A Drug Enforcement Administration agent making an arrest in New York City.
Posted: September 05, 2013

"I don't have to listen to your phone calls to know what you're doing. If I know every single phone call you made, I'm able to determine every single person you talked to. I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive."

That 2006 statement by then-Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware captures in a nutshell the problem with the current metadata-collection methods of U.S. spy agencies. The net they use to troll for information is too wide, and too likely to cause unwarranted violations of Americans' right to privacy.

Now comes news that it isn't just the National Security Agency that, in its pursuit of terrorists possibly plotting mayhem, uses this scattershot approach to domestic targets. The New York Times reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration has acted similarly to curb trafficking of illegal substances.

DEA agents have worked side by side with AT&T employees being paid by the government for the past six years to mine the telephone company's database as far back as 1987, looking for calls that might be tied to drug dealers. The so-called Hemisphere Project covers every call that has gone through an AT&T switch, not just those known to involve suspects.

Four billion call records are added to the database every day, the Times reported this week. Unlike the NSA's data, the Hemisphere program's files include the location of callers as well as phone numbers and the time and duration of calls. Also unlike the NSA's data, the files are kept by AT&T, which gives the government broad access to them.

The Obama administration's justification for continuing the program, which began in 2007, doesn't hold up well under scrutiny.

A Justice Department spokesman said Hemisphere streamlines the process of subpoenaing phone records. The program has helped find suspects who use and frequently discard prepaid cellphones, a common tactic among drug dealers. Hemisphere played a role in a 2011 case involving a seizure of 136 kilograms of cocaine and $2.2 million from Seattle drug dealers using prepaid cellphones. This year, it helped authorities catch a South Carolina woman accused of making a series of bomb threats.

The cost of apprehending such suspects, however, is a further erosion of privacy rights, which Americans can longer take for granted. We can expect not only that our movements are being recorded by cameras in most public places, but also that every phone call we make may become part of a government record.

Responding to that reality, Sens. Mark Udall (D., Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) have introduced legislation that would end the NSA's bulk collection of phone records. It would require the government to provide evidence that the private records it wants to collect are connected to terrorist or clandestine intelligence activities.

The same approach should be taken with the DEA's access to AT&T's information. As Vice President Biden pointed out years ago, it's too easy for data trolling to violate citizens' rights.

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