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Shareholders Demand Transparency for AT&T’s Hemisphere Phone Records Spying Program

AT&T logo turning into an eye

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. At the spring shareholder conference, Zevin Asset Management plans to force discussion of contradictions between AT&T’s stated commitment to privacy and civil liberties and the Hemisphere program. One of the chief goals is to demand greater transparency over the highly secretive program.

As EFF recently reported, 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 4 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 out social relationships and pinpoint locations of callers.

Federal law enforcement officials are able to obtain this information without going through a judge, and they are instructed to take devious measures to keep the program out of the public record. AT&T is not a passive responder to police demands. Rather, AT&T retains records longer than its competitors, places its employees at the regional hubs of drug interdiction task forces, and requires police to hide their use of Hemisphere

Nobody is forcing AT&T to do this; the company could end the Hemisphere program tomorrow. 

In a post on Medium, Pat Miguel Tomaino, Zevin Asset Management’s Associate Director of Socially Responsible Investing, explains how the shareholders must use their investments to resist threats to civil liberties under the incoming Trump administration. He writes:

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? 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. 

EFF has been fighting for more than a year in state and federal courts for records related to the Hemisphere program to hold the government accountable. Our efforts have yielded, for example, the police email calling Hemisphere “Google on steroids.” But private companies like AT&T are not subject to Freedom of Information laws. So we are pleased to see AT&T shareholders holding the company to account, and trying to compel it to publicly report on the consistency between its Hemisphere spying program and its own privacy policies.

Read the shareholder proposal [.pdf].

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