When you have massive amounts of data with you, especially data that can reveal so much information and so much insight that only machines can interpret, it seems very few can resist the temptation to sell it for profit, even if you are a very big company. Documents revealed by the Daily Beast show that AT&T has been secretly selling customer data to police departments for $100,000-$1 million a year.
The customer data was first intended to be shared under a program called Hemisphere in order to carry out counter-narcotics operations. AT&T is the only telecommunications company in the US that stores personal information like call time, duration and location data for years. Some records are as old as from 2008. AT&T provides landline and cell phone infrastructure to a large proportion of American population.
According to this Daily Beast revelation, the customer data that was intended to be shared for only specific reasons, began to be sold to various local law enforcement agencies for profit. What was in the beginning a “partnership” has turned into a profitable product for AT&T which it has been selling repeatedly to whomever is eager to pay. Usually when telephone records are to be accessed, a warrant is needed, but no warrant is needed to access the Hemisphere data.
On the surface there is nothing unusual about a telecommunications company providing data to law enforcement agencies especially when grave crimes are involved and they need to be solved with the help of this data. Many telecommunications companies do that and they are legally obligated to do that. If the data is available with the company and if a particular law enforcement agency asks for that data, it has to be provided.
The big advantage that AT&T has is that it has massive amounts of data, dating back to July 2008, and even longer. No other carrier or provider stores data that is more than a year old. For example, Verizon stores data for one year and Sprint stores it for 18 months.
The problem is not about AT&T providing customer data to law enforcement agencies, according to civil liberties activists. The problem is, once a company starts doing this, there is no limit to how much data can be shared and with whom If it becomes a product that can be sold for profit, then who stops other telecommunications companies and Internet service providers from using this information for profit? Why shouldn’t Google share information? Why shouldn’t Twitter? Why shouldn’t Facebook?