Phone spying has always been a very legitimate concern, but in the last few years that has grown tenfold – especially when you consider just how powerful modern day smartphones are. Decades ago, a phone was exactly that – a way to send and receive calls. If you didn’t say anything incriminating on a phone, phone spying wasn’t necessarily something that you were worried about – even IF you were up to no good.
Flash forward to today, and our entire lives are contained on a smartphone’s hard drive. People’s calls, text and other instances of their personal lives are present. Many people store credit card information, bank account data and other important financial items on them. Business professionals use them to access, edit and send mission-critical documents that would bring even the strongest company to its knees if they were to fall into the wrong hands.
So when a report surfaces that a major phone provider like AT&T may be spying on the American public for profit, it’s enough to get just about everyone to sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what seems to have happened according to an incident that has been going on since 2013.
AT&T and Hemisphere
Project Hemisphere is the name of a secret program run by AT&T that was designed, in part, to search through trillions of calls and take a closer look at cellular data that was previously assumed to be private. Using this data, AT&T (or the authorities) could not only determine exactly where someone is located just based on their phone records, but they could gain insight into who they’re talking to. They could extrapolate WHY they’re talking to that person and what they may do in the future.
When Project Hemisphere was first uncovered by The New York Times in 2013, it was described as a “collaborative partnership” between AT&T and the United States government. Representatives from the Justice Department indicated that it was critical in terms of bringing criminals to justice. They also said that it was very selectively (and rarely deployed), and it was almost always used to fight drug-related issues in our communities.
As it turns out, that may not be exactly true.
Internal documents from AT&T obtained by The Daily Beast indicate that Project Hemisphere is used in a huge number of situation BEYOND combating drug crimes. Not only that, but it’s less a partnership and more a product. It’s a tool that AT&T designed, developed and marketed to the government – which the government then paid for using taxpayer money.
The factor that really had people worried is that according to AT&T’s own documents, NO warrant is required for law enforcement or government officials to make use of Project Hemisphere. Instead, they must agree to a simple rule: they will not disclose that Project Hemisphere insights are being used in an investigation, should that investigation go on to become public knowledge.
Almost instantly, this became the subject of great controversy. It was particularly troublesome to a proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner. It was specifically cited by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign as reasons why the merger should either be heavily scrutinized or stopped at all costs.
At its core, Project Hemisphere is just yet another example of the huge volume of information that companies like AT&T are collecting from smartphone users. Though Project Hemisphere is just the latest and the most widely known example of this, it is undoubtedly not the first – or the last. It all goes to underline the importance of taking steps to project yourself in the digital age, particularly as smartphones become a much more ubiquitous part of our daily lives. Certain devices do exist that can limit a person’s ability to spy on your smartphone, but people have to both know these devices exist AND understand the issues they’re facing before they can really do any good.