It wasn't until Edward Snowden revealed a secret court order to Verizon, demanding that it furnish the NSA with all of its customer communications records, that people began grappling with the sheer scope of government surveillance.

Yet even as law enforcement and government agencies used technology to their advantage, so too did criminals become more shrewd and discerning. "One thing that law enforcement and anyone who's watched The Wire is aware of — criminals are very surveillance-conscious," Eckenwiler says. Gang members who engage in the type of conspiracies described in the 500 Block case typically use pre-paid "burner" phones, meaning they'll either throw the phones out and exchange them frequently, or use multiple phones in tandem.

"And if the target is smart — meaning he doesn't do something dumb like call the new phone from the old phone — then those practices make him much harder to track," Eckenwiler explains.

That's where Hemisphere comes in. While no one outside the program knows exactly how it operates, The New York Times report hints at a back-door arrangement: Law enforcement asks AT&T for troves of records with similar call patterns to discern whether they originated from the same person. That helps the cops make their subpoenas more refined and directed. Hemisphere also purports to have a special algorithm that matches every dropped phone to its new number.

The U.S. Attorney's office downplayed its use of Hemisphere in U.S. v. Ortiz, dismissing defense attorneys' claims as "speculation." But Oakland-based attorney David Andersen, who represents accused murderer and alleged 500 Block gang member Justin Whipple, says that documents he's seen suggest that AT&T and Metro PCS both disgorged phone records before they received any subpoenas from the courts — and that cops corresponded with a thing called "Hemisphere" to get them.


One of the biggest puzzles in the U.S. v. Ortiz case is a letter that the Daly City police sent to AT&T on April 15, 2011, requesting phone records for several of the defendants. It was followed by a subpoena issued from San Mateo Superior Court five days later. It seemed cops had asked the phone company to hand over phone-call information long before they had a signed order from a judge.

At the Dec. 20 hearing, prosecutor Wai Shun Wilson Leung insisted that investigators often give phone companies a heads-up to let them know they're about to receive a subpoena. And the letter was just that — a courtesy rather than an exhortation.

Defense attorney David Andersen wasn't buying it. He believes the letter — addressed to AT&T, Hemisphere Project, and a place called the Los Angeles Clearing House — was a means for the cops to launch a fishing expedition before they began their official probe.

"We suspect they're essentially tailoring subpoenas to information they've already obtained without the benefit of legal process," Andersen says. Thus, he continues, Hemisphere gives them that information, and then the cops go through and decide what's useful and what's not.

But those suspicions are hard to prove, namely because the phone company employees who work with Hemisphere have an edict to never allow information to be traced back to them. "Hemisphere says you can ask us for information, and we'll give it to you," Andersen explains. "But you can never use our name publicly — you just have to say you got the information by way of a subpoena to AT&T."

It's not even exactly clear whether Hemisphere is a brick-and-mortar office building where phone employees and narcotics detectives sit in adjacent cubicles, or whether it's just a set of rules. Nor has anyone transparently defined the Los Angeles Clearing House; in court documents, it's described, tautologically, as "a state agency that coordinates and facilitates communications involving state law enforcement agencies." Hemisphere's official training slides note that Los Angeles Clearing House coordinates the project, but a spokesman at the California Attorney General's office said he hadn't heard of the Clearing House. Calls to the Los Angeles Clearing House, whatever it is, were not returned.

To be fair, it might not shock the average citizen that the government uses a secret program to entrap criminal networks, or that it employs big data to make the program run more efficiently. But ACLU and EFF attorneys insist that if district court judges willingly condone Hemisphere, they'd give the government latitude to paw through any citizen's phone records, whether or not that person had been linked to a crime. The attorneys argue that Hemisphere raises just as many constitutional concerns as the NSA's mass call-tracking database.

Perhaps more: Because Hemisphere records divulge information about location that can't be gleaned from a mass-call database, the program appears to have a broader scope than other forms of surveillance.

Also disturbing, to Fakhoury and other civil liberties stalwarts, is the code of secrecy that Hemisphere uses to inure itself from judicial review — the logic being that no court can assess a program it doesn't know exists.

"The government shrouds its surveillance practices in secrecy," Fakhoury and ACLU attorney Linda Lye write, in a friend-of-the-court brief critiquing the program. "But that secrecy undermines democratic governance and prevents the federal courts from reviewing legally intrusive and unconstitutional forms of surveillance."

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5 comments
trai_dep
trai_dep

What is VERY key about this article is - like every other policing "innovation" tried out on the worst-of-the-worst™ in "extremely limited" situations, it will inevitably become the routine go-to tool in law enforcement's quiver.


You can't invest millions without trying to amortize its costs. You can't justify these vast sums for "only" less than a score of worst-of-the-worst™ bad guys. You can't get additional funds - or even keep an existing program running at current levels - without new worst-of-the-worst™ bad guys to target. Or even, meh-of-the-meh college protesters, former Occupiers or folks unsure whether gentrification should be allowed to be an unrestrained hurricane stripping San Francisco's soul bare with nary a complaint or picket.


Remember a decade past when we'd see armored police using military tactics and armored personnel carriers to perform the simplest tasks and think, "What a horrible country; lucky it's not here."? Now everyone -or someone's grandmother next door - potentially abusing a Medical Marijuana permit faces these full-throttle, military-grade tactics. Same with Asset Forfeiture laws. Coming soon, same with aerial drones. Etc. 


Today it's a bunch of crack-dealing, meth-slinging murderers. The very same Hemisphere technology will DEFINITELY be used for the next protest, the next net-based defense of the next Edward Snowden or the next peaceful demonstration suggesting perhaps - just perhaps - the needs and concerns of us 99% might also be considered when setting policies and enacting laws.


Nip it now, before it's you in its crosshairs.

UntilSomeoneGetsHurt
UntilSomeoneGetsHurt

This technology successfully helped send three SF murderers to prison for life... They are detailed in a previous story by the SFWeekly entitled "The Dark Prince".  The whole story can be found at Until Someone Gets Hurt dot com.  If it helps puts the bad guys away, then I say use it!!!

Federale
Federale topcommenter

LOL, liberals and immigrant drug gangs working together to spread drugs and crime.  

Prachi Singh
Prachi Singh

Arpan Bajaj I thought this was you for a sec hahah

 
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