Bad news, kiddies. Your phone can and will be used against you in a court of law. More specifically, who you call on that phone.
On Tuesday, the Daily Beast dropped a report about what the cooperation between authorities and a phone company can look like when the former are investigating a crime. And it caused people to freak out, even though the report retreads some information previously reported about the degree to which AT&T cooperates with authorities in mining its massive trove of customers’ call records.
At the heart of the report is a one-year, $121,430 contract between AT&T and the Atlanta Police Department, making AT&T a provider of “unique analytical services,” namely helping the Atlanta PD chase down drug dealers. What’s surprising in the contract is not the payment. Companies that spend time gathering records for the government are supposed to be paid for their time. In fact, privacy activists often push for that, as making the government pay for surveillance creates a burden that might discourage it. What’s surprising are two clauses in the contract, one that imposes secrecy and another that has AT&T going above and beyond the call of duty to help out with investigations.
Like Harris Corporation before it, which tried to keep its mobile-phone monitoring Stingrays secret, AT&T says that the government shouldn’t reveal the role it played in providing phone record analysis: “The Government will not attribute anything [sic] information/data regarding this contract to [AT&T].”
That means, potentially, that the accused wouldn’t know how evidence against them was gathered, one of those crucial rights we’re supposed to have in the justice system.
And what role is it exactly that AT&T plays? That’s laid out here:
AT&T offers not only to give the government the call logs it asks for, as it’s required to do by law when presented with a legal order. In addition, AT&T says it will make “recommendations” based on its analysis of the data, like new phone numbers the government should look into or what additional phones the target of an investigation might be using. That is actively aiding the authorities in their search beyond what’s required by law. It’s surveillance as a service, and involves data-mining information from paying customers for another governmental paying customer.
Maybe that’s not so surprising coming from a company that the National Security Agency [NSA] has reportedly called “highly collaborative,” with an “extreme willingness to help.”
In response to the revelations, AT&T released a statement: “Like other communications companies, if a government agency seeks customer call records through a subpoena, court order or other mandatory legal process, we are required by law to provide this non-content information, such as the phone numbers and the date and time of calls. These types of legal demands are referenced in the law enforcement section of our Transparency Report.”
According to AT&T’s transparency report, in the first half of this year it received nearly 100,000 subpoenas, the type of order required to do the analysis described above.