US Law Enforcement Also Conducting Mass Telephone Surveillance

Late last year, in a criminal case involving export violations, the US government disclosed a mysterious database of telephone call records that it had queried in the case.

The defendant argued that the database was the NSA's, and that the query was unconditional and the evidence should be suppressed. The government said that the database was not the NSA's. As part of the back and forth, the judge ordered the government to explain the call records database.

Someone from the Drug Enforcement Agency did that last week. Apparently, there's another bulk telephone metadata collection program and a "federal law enforcement database" authorized as part of a federal drug trafficking statute:

This database [redacted] consisted of telecommunications metadata obtained from United Stated telecommunications service providers pursuant to administrative subpoenas served up on the service providers under the provisions of 21 U.S.C. 876. This metadata related to international telephone calls originating in the United States and calling [redacted] designated foreign countries, one of which was Iran, that were determined to have a demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities.

The program began in the 1990s and was "suspended" in September 2013.

News article. Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread.

EDITED TO ADD (1/19): Another article.

Posted on January 19, 2015 at 12:42 PM • 29 Comments


CelosJanuary 19, 2015 1:13 PM

Face it, the US is a police-state now. Please push back against this as hard as (legally) possible. The rest of the world cannot do for a nuclear armed super-power what the allied forces did for Nazi Germany.

Dan AndrewsJanuary 19, 2015 1:33 PM

It is getting sad and it is getting crazy! However, we must continue to fight. Encourage people to join the as well as other excellent organizations. A voice of one is silenced but a voice of a crowd is well heard!

Dan Andrews

TimHJanuary 19, 2015 1:52 PM

The defendant argued that the database was the NSA's, and that the query was unconditional and the evidence should be suppressed.

Do you mean unconstitutional, not unconditional?

Table for OneJanuary 19, 2015 2:17 PM

Where the hell are all the American judges? What's the point of division of power and constitutional law if the country is allowed to become an authoritarian Banana Republic while the judiciary system sits back and watches?

Clive RobinsonJanuary 19, 2015 3:10 PM

When I was reading about this much earlier today I saw this,

The program began in the 1990s and was "suspended" in September 2013

And the thought occured to me "Has anyone asked why it's suspended?"

The answer could be very revealing if it can be found.

Another GuyJanuary 19, 2015 3:36 PM

The answer is probably classified, but I guess in 1990 this was a big deal technology-wise. It's probably been replaced or obsolete by another program of some sort, meaning they stopped adapting it. 23 years is remarkable service time.

Nick PJanuary 19, 2015 3:49 PM

@ Clive Robinson

They have easy access to NSA's programs that do the same thing. It's redundant, policy/budget favors NSA on the issue, and so it no longer makes sense to waste money on it. Just my guess.

OldFishJanuary 19, 2015 3:49 PM


>And the thought occured to me "Has anyone asked why it's suspended?"

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong...but that's the way to bet.

My bet: redundant and obsolete.

d33tJanuary 19, 2015 4:31 PM

Probable cause is dead. The last 22 year (yes longer) run of US government has shown us a whole new level of compulsive lying under oath of office. Zero accountability as well. I've always found the DEA to be one of the most laughable of the 3 letter agencies. An agency who protects a drug dealing / mass drug trafficking government from any unwanted "black market" competitors and gets to keep what ever it confiscates, often times with a complete lack of evidence of any crime. "Civil Forfeiture" is a crime that has been committed against the US public for a long time and Holder is no hero for "reigning it in".

DEA, FBI, CIA, NSA, BATFE, IRS et al need to go away for good in order for the US to earn its constitution back. A large majority of the "wars" these agencies supposedly fight are self perpetuating and have served to silence the public as well as ensure their own existence by disrupting society at every level.

Another GuyJanuary 19, 2015 6:18 PM

@ now2015

well, the telephone may be where content trumps metadata because the call quality is crisp nowadays. call 'metadata' are stored for stuff like billing, which in most cases are processed on foreign soil, which means low classification. the valuable 'payload' in these types of program is in the payload itself, i assume; but that which they won't admit to collect.

Dirk PraetJanuary 19, 2015 6:51 PM

@Clive Robinson

The program began in the 1990s and was "suspended" in September 2013. And the thought occured to me "Has anyone asked why it's suspended?"

Remember the parallel construction stories of 2013 ? In August 2013, EFF published the following article: DEA and NSA Team Up to Share Intelligence, Leading to Secret Use of Surveillance in Ordinary Investigations. Which would seem to confirm that the old program was probably abandonned because DEA and IRS alike could get better data off NSA. If somehow it was reactivated after that, I would say it was done just to avoid this sort of lawsuits going awry with defendants pleading evidence against them be thrown out because it was illegally obtained. While at the same time continuing to use it behind the smoke screen of the original program.

Interesting new trend. The USG giving up previously unknown sources and methods because of inconvenient questions from both judges and the general public casting doubt on cases they are trying to further. Exact same thing with the Sony/DPRK attribution.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 19, 2015 9:33 PM

@ Dirk Praet,

The USG giving up previously unknown sources and methods because of inconvenient questions from both judges and the general public casting doubt on cases they are trying to further.

Yes that's the line I've been thinking along, the questions this change of tactic raises are even more surprising.

I realy don't believe they are trying to "clean house", after all nobody swept out the Aegean Stables, even when the stink got beyond bearable. They only got Hercules in on the assumption he would fail, so they could tell the public it was an impossible task that not even a son of a god could solve. Thus like it or loath it they would have to live with things the way they were.

One such question is "What are they trying to cover up or head off?", which in turn suggests that they think there is information out there that has not yet been brought to the publics attention.

You mentioned Sony and NK, it's arguable that they have scored an "own goal" with the "we hacked them first" argument.

After all it's the same as admitting you had broken into a house to steal a few things and were supprised by the armed householder, but instead of him shooting you, he dropped the gun which was grabbed by a woman and she shot him dead, there is no trace of a woman or gun at the scene nor record of the householder owning a gun that would match the bullet in his corpse, you however have a criminal record of going armed on your robberies, and you only come up with this story after you've been subject to a few tough questions... it's going to be a tough sell to the public without one heck of a lot more evidence in your favour. And you would be lucky if all they said was "Only in the movies bud, only in the movies"...

WaelJanuary 20, 2015 1:32 AM


What's a 'telephone'?

A) Same thing as a 'telefone'
B) It's an anagram of: The Ole' Pen
C) What? Are you pulling a "Bill Clinton"?
D) A class of devices that allow remote or far (Tele) voice or sound (phone) communications.
E) It's a contraption that looks like the thing your neighbor has on her roof.

Ole JuulJanuary 20, 2015 2:46 AM

This is just one more reason to dump the incumbents and go with the CLECs. Spreading it around a little makes it more difficult to collect the data.

SJJanuary 20, 2015 12:17 PM


I recall seeing discussion* of InfraRed photography that could see through house walls, back in the 2008 timeframe. Or possibly earlier...So I'd say that this technology is not a new thing. Even if the particular method is a new thing.

Could this be used in detecting locations of persons inside preparatory to knocking on the door and announcing a warrant?

Would an agency want to use it preparatory to a "no-knock" raid, to help minimize loss and injury to Police? (Or to minimize loss and injury to the residents during the raid?)

Could it be used to detect whether the property can be searched (without warrant) when no residents are present?

The technology has uses that are defensible, uses that are questionable, and uses that obviously trample on the rights of citizens.

*It was a law-prof blogging about how the Supreme Court of the U.S. would handle such issues.

Al CoaJanuary 20, 2015 5:23 PM

"President Quack-Quack today announced a bold new plan to boost sales for America's dwindling aluminum foil industry...."

"WANTED - Aluminum-foil wallpaper installers. Salary negotiable. Call 666-6666."

NoSuchAgencyJanuary 20, 2015 6:21 PM

The use of the radar device, known as Range-R, was made public in a Denver court late last year.

It was used by police entering a house to arrest a man who had violated the terms of his parole.

In court documents relating to the case, lawyers defending Steven Denson questioned whether officers entered his home lawfully.

The general theme here seems to be that if it can be done remotely, without alerting the person under surveillance, and without leaving any physical trace it ever happened, then it is perfectly OK to do...

vas pupJanuary 21, 2015 3:28 PM

@steve37: some addition to your good and timely posting:
"In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that police cannot use thermal cameras without a warrant, specifically noting that the rule would also apply to radar-based systems that were then being developed."
Steve and all respected bloggers,
There is no everything or nothing with police usage of such technology. E.g. in hostage rescue, terrorist cell breaking in by police. In all those cases tools is used as legitimate as criminal intel /rescue tool without warrant (my guess - reasonable assumption), but quote was related to through wall vision to find out pot illegal growing (as best of my memory). SWAT team (state or feds) should have such device as standard piece of equipment in their possession for usage without warrant in such situations, not regular patrol cop/agent. Similar technology/cameras - thermal was developed to fire fighter to see through smoke and flames. That is the same case when LEAs could compromise good powerful technology by utilizing it for minor criminal related cases. 'Kill bird with cannon' is counterproductive.

CallMeLateForSupperJanuary 22, 2015 12:50 PM

"The program began in the 1990s and was 'suspended' in September 2013."

I spy wiggle-room: "suspended". Suspended for how long? The word "suspended" does not specify a period of time. It is also mute regarding whether or not the suspended activity was ever resumed.

Many an outdoor sporting event has been suspended due to inclement weather and then resumed in relatively short order. I would bet a case of Bass Ale that many a spy program was suspended - e.g. for "teething problems" - and then resumed. Of course, we know of at least one NSA program that was suspended, then resumed *under*a*new*name*.

SchneieronSecurityFanJanuary 28, 2015 2:26 AM

It's interesting to see how Iran is on the list because of a "nexus" to international drug smuggling. The Statement is from a DEA special-agent-in-charge. Homeland Security Investigations queries the database because of joint jurisdiction under the Controlled Substances Act. The defendant doesn't seem have anything to do with drugs. Other agencies probably could query the database, too.

Whiskers in MenloJanuary 28, 2015 4:35 PM

One reality:
The power of meta data is not understood by those crafting law or sitting judges.
The scope of what is called meta data is ill defined. Might include a voiceprint match
might include anything that links to anything else.

One speculation:
Suspended in Sept 2013, Might have been restarted in Oct 2013 with about a 120 second gap.
Perhaps the program was renamed because the code name was seen outside of the community.

One worry:
Slurping data from sources that have it is often a too easy way to bypass a prohibition in the law.
Using a proxy like the UK to snoop on US citizens especially when a like service is given in payment
is troubling because both agencies have both sets of data and the law on both sides was bypassed.

It is clear that geeks are drunk with the power of their meta data and it is a keep up with
the Joneses game. The costs are darn close to the price of a better than average automobile
which puts the financial checks and balances very low in the organization charts. i.e. almost
any manager with a discretionary budget and single signatory caps will be able to sign off on it
without writing a justification and without oversight. Money via federal gifts and grants make this
more common. Most grant money is ill accounted for.

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