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Secret phone surveillance program spies on millions of Americans

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Imagine that every time you make a phone call, someone listens and records your conversation.

They also track who you talk to, when, where and for how long.

And they don’t stop there.

They also monitor calls from people you talk to, people they talk to, etc. It’s a reality for the millions of Americans who use AT&T’s phone network.

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A man on a cell phone. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

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AT&T’s role in the massive phone surveillance program

According to a letter obtained by WIRED, a little-known surveillance program called Data Analytical Services (DAS) secretly collects and analyzes more than a trillion domestic phone records in the United States each year. The program, formerly known as Hemisphere, is managed by telecommunications giant AT&T in coordination with federal, state and local law enforcement.

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Woman talking on her cell phone. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

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How does DAS work?

The program uses a technique known as chain scanning, which targets not only people in direct telephone contact with a criminal suspect, but also anyone with whom those people have been in contact. This means that innocent people who have no connection to any crime can have their phone records swept up and examined by authorities.

The program allows law enforcement to access records of all calls using AT&T’s infrastructure, which covers much of the country. The records include telephone numbers, dates, times, durations and locations of calls, and subscriber names and addresses.

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Man talking on his cell phone on the street. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

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DAS raises privacy and civil liberties concerns

The DAS program raises serious concerns about the privacy and civil liberties of millions of Americans. It operates without any judicial oversight or public accountability and violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The program also contradicts the spirit of the USA Freedom Act, passed in 2015 to reform the mass collection of telephone records by the National Security Agency (NSA). The law required the NSA to stop collecting phone records in bulk and instead request them from phone companies on a court-ordered case-by-case basis. However, the DAS program circumvents this requirement by allowing AT&T to collect and store the recordings for law enforcement purposes.

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A woman talking on a cell phone. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

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How widespread and secretive is DAS?

The DAS program is not widely known or understood by the public or media. It has reportedly been operating for more than a decade and received more than $6 million from the White House.

AT&T declined to comment on the program, saying only that the law requires it to comply with a lawful subpoena. However, there is no law requiring AT&T to store decades of U.S. call recordings for law enforcement purposes. In fact, AT&T willingly cooperated with authorities and even trained them on how to use the program.

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How is the DAS financed?

The DAS program is funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under a program called HIDTA, or “high-intensity drug trafficking area.” HIDTA is a designation assigned to 33 different areas of the United States where drug trafficking is considered a serious problem.

Former President Barack Obama reportedly suspended funding for the program in 2013 after The New York Times first revealed it. However, the various law enforcement agencies were allowed to continue to contract directly with AT&T to use the service.

Former President Donald Trump resumed funding for the program in 2017, but halted it again in 2021. President Biden resumed funding for the program in 2021 but has not made public comments about it.

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The White House has acknowledged a WIRED investigation but has not yet provided comment.

Legal and policy challenges facing the DAS program

The DAS program has also been challenged by some lawmakers and activists, who have expressed serious concerns about its legality and impact. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a vocal critic of mass surveillance, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to investigate and review the program. Wyden also received “disturbing information” from the Justice Department, which he is prohibited from disclosing to the public, but which he said would “rightly outrage many Americans and other members of Congress.”

The DAS program has also been challenged by some lawsuits and public records requests, which sought to expose and shut down the program. However, the program has successfully evaded or resisted these efforts by claiming that the phone records belong to AT&T, not the government, and that the program is protected by trade secrets and law enforcement privileges.

How to avoid being spied on by the DAS program

There are several ways to protect yourself from phone surveillance. However, none of these methods are foolproof or guaranteed to work, and some of them may have drawbacks or limitations. Here are a few:

1) Use encryption: One way to protect the content of your phone calls is to use encryption, which scrambles the data so that only the intended recipient can decode it. Some apps offer end-to-end encryption for voice calls, like Signal, WhatsApp or Telegram. However, encryption does not protect your call metadata, such as phone numbers, dates, times, durations, and locations, which may still be collected and analyzed by the DAS program. Encryption also depends on the reliability and security of the application and its provider.

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2) Use alternative communication methods: Another way to protect yourself from phone surveillance is to use alternative communication methods that do not rely on AT&T’s phone infrastructure or network. For example, you can use email, chat, or video calls over the Internet, or you can use a landline or pay phone. However, these methods may not be as convenient, reliable, or accessible as using your own phone, and they may also carry their own risks or vulnerabilities. For example, emails and chats may also be subject to surveillance or hacking, and landlines and payphones may also be tapped or traced.

3) Use privacy tools and practices: A third way to protect yourself from phone surveillance is to use privacy tools and practices that can help you reduce or hide your digital footprint and identity. For example, you can use a virtual private network (VPN), which can hide your IP address and location. It can also anonymize your online activity and traffic. However, these tools and practices may not be enough to protect you from the DAS program, which can still access your phone records and link them to your true identity via on-chain analysis or other methods.

Check out my expert review of the best VPNs for browsing the web privately on your Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices.

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A woman on a cell phone using a VPN. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

Kurt’s Key Takeaways

The DAS program is a massive, secret phone surveillance program that violates the privacy and civil rights of millions of Americans. The program operates without any judicial oversight or public accountability, and it contradicts reforms made by the USA Freedom Act. The program also lacks transparency and safeguards to prevent abuse and misuse, and it has been used for a wide range of crimes, not just drug trafficking. The DOJ should investigate and review the program and inform the public of its scope and results.

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What do you think about the DAS program and its impact on your privacy and civil rights? Do you think this is justified and necessary or illegal and intrusive? Let us know by writing to us at Cyberguy.com/Contact

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