This is how the New York Times describes a telephone surveillance program carried out by federal drug enforcement agencies:
For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counternarcotics program have had routine access, using subpoenas, to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of Americans' phone calls -- parallel to but covering a far longer time than the National Security Agency's hotly disputed collection of phone call logs.
Sounds ominous, but is it?
The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T that has not previously been reported, involves an extremely close association between the government and the telecommunications giant.
The government pays AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units around the country. Those employees sit alongside Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local detectives and supply them with the phone data from as far back as 1987.
Should it concern us that AT&T cooperates so closely with law enforcement?
The scale and longevity of the data storage appears to be unmatched by other government programs, including the N.S.A.'s gathering of phone call logs under the Patriot Act. The N.S.A. stores the data for nearly all calls in the United States, including phone numbers and time and duration of calls, for five years.
Hemisphere covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch - not just those made by AT&T customers - and includes calls dating back 26 years, according to Hemisphere training slides bearing the logo of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Some four billion call records are added to the database every day, the slides say; technical specialists say a single call may generate more than one record. Unlike the N.S.A. data, the Hemisphere data includes information on the locations of callers.
On the surface, it appears that this program is fairly harmless. But as with the NSA surveillance programs, all the safeguards in the world mean nothing if the system is abused. And when you have such a massive amount of data, the temptation by law enforcement to use it for other purposes becomes irresistible.
This, however, is disconcerting:
Crucially, they said, the phone data is stored by AT&T, and not by the government as in the N.S.A. program. It is queried for phone numbers of interest mainly using what are called "administrative subpoenas," those issued not by a grand jury or a judge but by a federal agency, in this case the D.E.A.
Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement that "subpoenaing drug dealers' phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations."
Mr. Fallon said that "the records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government," and that Hemisphere "simply streamlines the process of serving the subpoena to the phone company so law enforcement can quickly keep up with drug dealers when they switch phone numbers to try to avoid detection."
He said that the program was paid for by the D.E.A. and the White House drug policy office but that the cost was not immediately available.
Anyone else see a problem with bypassing a federal judge and allowing some bureaucrat at the DEA to issue a subpoena to get phone records?
More oversight, please.