EPIC v. DEA - Hemisphere

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  • EPIC Sues Drug Enforcement Administration For Release of Privacy Assessments: EPIC has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain details about the Drug Enforcement Administration’s surveillance programs. The agency is required to publish privacy impact assessments for its data collection programs. However, the agency has failed to make available privacy impact assessments for many of its programs, including the massive cell phone metadata program "Hemisphere" and a nationwide license plate reader program. EPIC has a related lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation for that agency’s privacy impact assessments for several programs including "Next Generation Identification." (May. 1, 2015)
  • Drug Enforcement Agency Gathered Telephone Records on Millions of Americans: According to USA Today the Drug Enforcement Agency has engaged in a secret telephone record collection program involving Americans for many years. The federal agency collected the telephone call records of Americans for nearly a decade before September 11. Government officials told USA Today that the program was discontinued in 2013, but documents obtained by EPIC indicate that the DEA program "Hemisphere" is ongoing. EPIC is pursuing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, EPIC v. DEA, to obtain further details about the DEA's bulk collection activities. EPIC is also pursuing related suits against the National Security Agency and the Department of Justice concerning metadata collection. (Apr. 8, 2015)
  • EPIC Pursues Information About "Hemisphere," Massive Phone Record Database: EPIC has filed a motion for summary judgment in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration. More than a year ago, EPIC sought documents from the agency concerning "Hemisphere," a massive AT&T call records database available to government agents. EPIC asked for the legal basis and privacy impact of the program. After the agency failed to respond to the request, EPIC filed a lawsuit. The DEA then produced several hundred pages of records. However, almost all were entirely redacted. EPIC now contends that the agency has failed to comply with the law. For more information, see EPIC: EPIC v. DEA - Hemisphere and EPIC: Freedom of Information Act. (Dec. 3, 2014)
  • EPIC Files FOIA Lawsuit for Information About Massive Telco Database "Hemisphere": EPIC has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for records about "Hemisphere," a massive telephone record collection program operated by the Drug Enforcement Agency in cooperation with AT&T. Under the program, law enforcement agencies access billions of detailed customer phone records, including location data, dating back to 1987 in routine criminal matters unrelated to national security. EPIC filed the complaint after the federal agency failed to respond to EPIC's FOIA request for information about the operation and legal authority for the program. EPIC has previously challenged the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records in a petition to the US Supreme Court. For more information, see EPIC: In re EPIC (NSA Telephone Record Surveillance), EPIC: Hemisphere and EPIC v. DEA (Hemisphere FOIA). (Feb. 28, 2014)


On September 1, 2013, the New York Times reported on a previously secret government program called “Hemisphere,” which is the largest telephone record collection program reported to date. According to the Times and a Hemisphere training PowerPoint obtained by the paper, Hemisphere allows law enforcement personnel in multiple agencies to access billions of phone records of AT&T customers, as well as any non-customers whose communication is routed through an AT&T switch; unlike the controversial NSA phone records collection program, Hemisphere also includes location information. A government subpoena to AT&T will retrieve CDRs on calls made as recently as one hour before the request was approved, and as far back as 1987.

The program, which has been in operation since at least 2007 and is funded by the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) and the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, supplies “electronic call detail records” in response to both administrative and grand jury subpoenas. Every day, AT&T adds 4 billion new records to the Hemisphere database, which is used primarily for counternarcotics investigations, but is also used for a variety of other law enforcement activities.

Although the records are stored by AT&T, four of the company’s staff are paid by the program. Columbia Law professor Daniel C. Richman told the Times that “[e]ven though the data resides with AT&T, the deep interest and involvement of the government in its storage may raise constitutional issues.” Additionally, the government uses an algorithm, untethered to judicial authority, to determine which phone records to subpoena. EPIC President Marc Rotenberg noted to the Associated Press that Hemisphere “raises several privacy concerns, including that if a query returns call records that are similar to, but not, those of the suspect, agents could be reviewing call records of people who haven't done anything wrong.”

EPIC's Interest

The Hemisphere Program raises at least two complementary issues that are of substantial and longstanding concern to EPIC: domestic surveillance and private corporations’ disclosure of telephone records without judicial review.

First, EPIC is extremely active in matters of domestic surveillance. For example, in 2012, EPIC President Marc Rotenberg testified on the need for increased oversight and transparency before the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, which was discussing reauthorization of the FISA Amendment Act of 2008.

Additionally, EPIC filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the case of Clapper v. Amnesty International USA concerning the NSA's surveillance and collection of domestic communications. EPIC has also reported extensively on fusion centers, which aggregate information on civilians in secret databases. The degree of EPIC’s interest in surveillance issues is indicated by the amount of attention given to them at EPIC.org, which contains many pages devoted to informing the public about developments regarding the NSA phone record surveillance program, wiretapping, FISA, FISC, the USA PATRIOT Act, telephone call monitoring, and locational privacy.

Second, a substantial amount of EPIC's work has been directed at defending the privacy of telephone records. For example, EPIC filed a successful petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concerning the illegal sale of telephone records. The FCC responded to our petition with a new order and proposed rulemaking that established limitations on the disclosure of information. As another example, in Conboy v. AT&T, a case concerning the disclosure of unlisted number, home address and telephone billing information, we argued that courts have recognized the harm that flows from the unauthorized disclosure of personal information and have expanded privacy protections in response to new threats to this fundamental right. In our efforts to defend the privacy of telephone records from unauthorized access, EPIC has recognized the importance of the neutral review offered by judicial process, which is a key issue with the Hemisphere Program.

EPIC's Freedom of Information Act Request

On September 25, 2013, EPIC submitted FOIA requests asking for:

  • 1) All Hemisphere training modules, request forms, and similar final guidance documents that are used in the day-to-day operation of the program;
  • 2) Any analyses, memos, opinions, or other communications that discuss the legal basis of the program;
  • 3) Any analyses, memos, opinions, or other communications that discuss the privacy impact of the program; and
  • 4) Any presentations, analyses, memos, opinions or other communications for Congress that cover Hemisphere’s operations.

Freedom of Information Act Documents

Legal Documents for EPIC v. DEA, 1:14-cv-00317 (D.D.C. filed Feb. 26, 2014)

Released Documents

Previously Released Documents

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