published : 2023-11-26

A Secret Phone Surveillance Program: Spying on Millions of Americans

How the Government Tracks Your Every Call and Invades Your Privacy

A person holding a smartphone with a concerned expression, symbolizing the invasion of privacy. (Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV)

Imagine that every time you make a phone call, someone is keeping an extraordinarily detailed record of the call. They are tracking who you are talking to, when, where, and for how long. And they don’t stop there.

They also track the calls of the people you talk to, the people they talk to, and so on. This is a reality for millions of Americans who use AT&T’s phone network.

A little-known surveillance program called Data Analytical Services (DAS), run by AT&T in coordination with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, has been secretly collecting and analyzing more than a trillion domestic phone records within the U.S. each year.

Unlike the reforms made by the USA Freedom Act, the DAS program operates without any judicial oversight or public accountability. It violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.

An AT&T phone network tower against a backdrop of blue sky, representing the infrastructure that is utilized for phone surveillance. (Taken with Nikon D850)

Through a technique called chain analysis, the program targets not only those in direct phone contact with a criminal suspect but anyone with whom those individuals have been in contact. This means innocent people can have their phone records swept up and scrutinized by the authorities.

Law enforcement agencies have access to the records of any calls that use AT&T’s infrastructure. These records include phone numbers, dates, times, durations, locations, as well as the names and addresses of subscribers.

The DAS program, which has been operating for more than a decade, raises serious concerns about privacy and civil liberties. It not only bypasses the requirements set by the USA Freedom Act but also contradicts its spirit.

While AT&T claims to be complying with the law, the voluntary cooperation and training provided to law enforcement raise questions about the extent of their involvement.

A close-up of a lock symbolizing encryption and the importance of protecting sensitive information. (Taken with Sony Alpha a7 III)

Funded by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) through a program called HIDTA, the DAS program is shrouded in secrecy. It receives millions of dollars and has been able to evade legal challenges by claiming trade secrets and law enforcement privileges.

Despite some lawmakers and activists challenging its legality and impact, the DAS program remains largely unknown to the public and the media.

To protect yourself from phone surveillance, encryption and alternative communication methods may offer some defense. However, these methods are not foolproof and may have limitations. Privacy tools and practices can also help reduce your digital footprint but may not be enough against the DAS program.

The DAS program represents a significant violation of privacy and civil rights, yet it operates without transparency, oversight, or safeguards. It is imperative that the Department of Justice investigates and reviews the program to inform the public about its scope and outcome.