A connection between AT&T's massive—and for-profit—secret spying program and the beating deaths of a San Clemente businessman and his family?
Welcome to the brave new world.
The Daily Beast's Kenneth Lipp was among those who reported Tuesday that Project Hemisphere, a secretive program run by AT&T that searches trillions of call records and analyzes cellular data, has been used for more than just helping the government stop narcotics trafficking, as had been previously disclosed.
Lipp writes that newly released documents reveal that Project Hemisphere has also been used to track welfare fraud, murder suspects and whatever else requested of government agencies that pay AT&T for the data.
With your money.
To illustrate this, the Daily Beaster points to the November 2014 arrest of Charles Ray “Chase” Merritt, a Homeland ironworker suspected of killing Joseph McStay, 40, Summer McStay, 43, and their sons Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3.
The last day the family was seen was on Feb. 4, 2010, when Joseph McStay met in Rancho Cucamonga with Merritt, who was a subcontractor for McStay's fountain design business.
After three years of searching, San Diego County sheriff's investigators concluded the McStays voluntarily left their home in Fallbrook, where they had recently moved after residing for years in Orange County, to live in Mexico.
A year after that, the remains of the McStay family were found buried in the San Bernardino County desert north of Victorville.
Homicide investigators quickly honed in on Merritt, because he had been the last to see Joseph McStay, who had reportedly loaned $30,000 to Merritt to cover a gambling debt. But that along with McStay's DNA being found in Merritt's vehicle was not enough evidence for an arrest.
No, that would come after Project Hemisphere data put Merritt's mobile phone near a cellular tower and the McStay gravesite two days after the family disappeared, Lipp reports.
San Bernardino County's district attorney is seeking the death penalty for Merritt, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
Despite the comfort Merritt's arrest has brought to the friends and loved ones of the deceased, the idea that a private company like AT&T is profiting off taxpayer-funded spying on Americans is raising red flags. As Lipp writes:
Hemisphere isn’t a “partnership” but rather a product AT&T developed, marketed, and sold at a cost of millions of dollars per year to taxpayers. No warrant is required to make use of the company’s massive trove of data, according to AT&T documents, only a promise from law enforcement to not disclose Hemisphere if an investigation using it becomes public.
These new revelations come as the company seeks to acquire Time Warner in the face of vocal opposition saying the deal would be bad for consumers. Donald Trump told supporters over the weekend he would kill the acquisition if he’s elected president; Hillary Clinton has urged regulators to scrutinize the deal.
It's one thing for a telecommunications company to be required to turn over records to the government. AT&T is profiting off of it, an ACLU analyst tells Lipp.
AT&T's spokesperson told Lipp that the company has no database tool and only provides additional employees to help speed up government requests. AT&T also released this 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.
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Critics aren't buying the explanation, saying the documents Lipp cites show AT&T is engaged in data mining for profit. Among them is Fight for the Future, a digital rights group known for its high profile campaigns for free speech and online security.
“The for-profit spying program that these documents detail is more terrifying than the illegal NSA surveillance programs that Edward Snowden exposed," says campaign director Evan Greer in a statement. "Far beyond the NSA and FBI, these tools are accessible to a wide range of law enforcement officers including local police, without a warrant, as long as they pay up. It makes me sick to my stomach thinking about it.
"Customers trusted AT&T with some of their most private information, and the company turned around and literally built a product to sell that information to as many government agencies and police departments as they could. Not only did they fail to have any safeguards to prevent unauthorized use of the data, they actually required law enforcement to keep the program secret and dig up or fabricate other evidence, to hide the fact that they’d received information from AT&T. If companies are allowed to operate in this manner without repercussions, our democracy has no future."
Fight for the Future is calling on AT&T "to immediately shut down this illegal and unethical spying program," Greer says, "and we demand that the U.S. Department of Justice launch an investigation into the use of the Hemisphere spying program, and reveal all court cases where Hemisphere was used so that they can be reviewed."