AT&T reportedly has a secret program that helps law enforcement spy without a warrant

AT&T has a secret program called Hemisphere that allows law enforcement to obtain call metadata on targeted individuals without first obtaining a search warrant, according to a new report in The Daily Beast.

While Hemisphere was first revealed in 2013 by The New York Times, the Daily Beast reported on new documents it obtained that showed the program is much larger than initially thought, and that law enforcement does not need a search warrant before using the database, but instead needs only an administrative subpoena.

Probable cause is needed before issuing a search warrant, but an administrative subpoena only requires a government agent to declare the information they may obtain could be "relevant" to an investigation.

AT&T received more than 103,000 subpoenas from January to June of this year, but only about 20,000 search warrants showing probable cause, according to the company's transparency report. The report does not offer specifics.

The Times reported in 2013 that Hemisphere was a "partnership" between AT&T and federal and local law enforcement engaged in drug investigations, where the government was paying the company to place its employees with counter-drug units throughout the country.

The program, started in 2007, is highly secretive. Training slides obtained by the Times detail steps to protect the program from public view and "keep the program under the radar." Law enforcement agencies who use the program, the slides show, are also instructed to never refer to Hemisphere by name in official documents.

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How it actually works

To query Hemisphere, law enforcement agencies — which pay anywhere from $77,000 to $1 million a year for access — need to make a request for data on a given phone number, according to the Daily Beast's report. The request is made to an AT&T employee who will mine the database and give law enforcement the information within, which includes phone metadata, such as call times, who was called, and the location of the subscriber's phone, the report says.

This data, however, is not to be used as evidence in court, documents obtained by the Daily Beast show.

Since evidence obtained through Hemisphere cannot be used, it's clear that law enforcement must instead use it to find other evidence it can legitimately use in a courtroom without indicating the initial source — a controversial practice known as "parallel construction."

The DEA routinely uses this method in investigations they are initially tipped to by classified intelligence given by the CIA or NSA.

"Our investigations must be transparent. We must be able to take our information to court and prove to a jury that our bad guy did the bad things we say he did," a training slide from the DEA, made public in 2014, reads. "However, we are also bound to protect certain pieces of information so as to protect the sources and methods."

While the Times focused on the anti-drug aspect of the program, it turns out that Hemisphere has been used in other ways, such as in homicide investigations or Medicaid fraud.

"Like other communications companies, if a government agency seeks customer call records through a subpoena, court order or other mandatory legal process, we are required by law to provide this non-content information, such as the phone numbers and the date and time of calls," Fletcher Cook, a spokesperson for AT&T, told Business Insider.

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Cybersecurity tips everyone should know about:

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KEEP YOUR PASSWORDS STRONG AND VARIED

If your password is easy for you to remember, then it'll be easy for hackers, too. Try using symbols, numbers and capital letters throughout your passcode. Also, experts suggest you use different passwords for different accounts. 

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EMPLOY TWO-STEP AUTHENTICATION

Add another layer of security by having another code sent to your phone number before you can sign in.

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BEWARE OF PUBLIC WIFI

If you're traveling, verify with the coffee shop or hotel that the wi-fi name is valid -- many cybercriminals set up networks with similar names to popular spots. You can also set up a private VPN that encrypts all of your data that passes through the network.

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COVER YOUR TRACKS

Wipe your hard drive clean before giving away, recycling or throwing out your old laptop or computer.

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DON'T LEAVE YOUR DEVICES UNATTENDED

That's just asking for trouble!

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BEWARE OF MYSTERIOUS URLS IN EMAILS

Don't ever click on URL from an unidentified or sketchy looking email. 

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COVER YOUR WEBCAM 

FBI director James Comey suggests placing a piece of tape over your webcam when you're not using it. If that doesn't convince you, note that Mark Zuckerberg is known to do the same.

KEEP YOUR SOFTWARE UP TO DATE

Hackers target vulnerabilities in software, which are often resolved in software updates, so stop hitting the "ignore" or "remind me later" button!

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See Also:

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