A few weeks ago, privacy experts asked AT&T to stop a telephone spy operation that they have rented out to cops. Users describe this program as “Google on steroids”, owing to the numerous private telephone records that it access. Shareholders of AT&T are challenging the operation of the company inside the spy program.
In a resolution that is being prepared for presentation to AT&T, the shareholders are asking for a public report and board review “on the consistency between AT&T’s policies on privacy and civil rights and the company’s actions with respect to U.S. law enforcement investigations.”
“This proposal addresses programs in use domestically like ‘Hemisphere,’” said the resolution. “A group of investors in AT&T have had it with the phone company’s collaboration with law enforcement through the Hemisphere program, in which the company facilitates police access to trillions of phone records,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
EFF explained: “Police refer to Hemisphere as a ‘Super Search Engine’ and ‘Google on steroids’ because it provides access to trillions of domestic and international phone call records dating back 30 years. Each day, approximately four billion phone records are added to the system, including calls from non-AT&T customers that pass through the company’s switches and even when a customer changes phone numbers.”
“Hemisphere can also map social relationships and pinpoint locations of callers,” EFF added. The Foundation also said that with the cooperation of AT&T, it actually sells access to the telephone data. This means that the law enforcement officials are able to have access to the details of a phone call without the need to go through a judge. AT&T imposes strict regulations to keep this program secret.
Pat Miguel Tomaino, who is the associate director for socially responsible investing at Zevin Asset management said, “We are shining a light on AT&T’s Hemisphere program, a giant database of customer calls which AT&T runs as a lucrative business line, charging law enforcement agencies upwards of $1 million for bespoke searches and analytics.”
“AT&T says that it follows the law and hands over customer data only when police present a legal demand. But why does AT&T retain more call data than peer companies like Verizon and Sprint? Why does the company allegedly force law enforcement agencies to keep Hemisphere a secret?,” he added.
Tomaino also added that they are expecting proper statements from the responsible parties soon. “At AT&T’s annual meeting next year, Zevin will push for answers on this risky business and for an explanation of the gap between the company’s responsible-sounding privacy policies and Hemisphere’s immense scope,” he said.