July 28, 2021

Feds reveal new details about secret database of phone records

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DOJ-Mysterious-DatabaseBy Zoe Tillman, From Legal Times

The U.S. Department of Justice, forced by a judge to reveal information about a secret law enforcement database of phone records, on Thursday disclosed new details about the now-defunct data-collection program.

The phone-records database is distinct from the National Security Agency bulk metadata collection program, which is the subject of constitutional challenges in several courts nationwide. According to court papers the department filed Thursday in Washington, the previously undisclosed database tracked international calls from the United States to foreign countries that had a “demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities.”

The database included telephone data provided by U.S. telecommunications providers under subpoena, according to the Justice Department. The program was suspended in September 2013 and eventually terminated. According to a Justice Department official on Friday, the database hasn’t been searchable since the program was suspended and the records deleted. The official did not provide additional information about why the program was shut down.

The database surfaced last year in a criminal case over an alleged violation of the U.S. trade embargo with Iran. The defendant, Shantia Hassanshahi, claimed a search of his laptop that yielded incriminating documents was unlawful because investigators were only able to track him down through the government’s use of the unidentified law enforcement database of telephone records.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in December denied Hassanshahi’s request to suppress information from his laptop, but demanded the Justice Department provide an explanation—for the judge’s eyes only—of “the contours of the mysterious law enforcement database used by [Homeland Security Investigations], including any limitations on how and when the database may be used.”

After hearing from the government, Contreras ordered the Justice Department to explain why it was necessary to keep the information about the database secret. On Thursday, the department published a redacted version of a declaration it gave the judge. A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent submitted the declaration describing the contours of the telephone data collection program. The declaration did not identify which federal agency maintained the database.

According to the declaration, the database included information on phone numbers that made and received calls, the date, time and duration of those calls, and how the calls were billed. It did not include “subscriber information or other personal identifying information,” according to the DEA agent. Federal law enforcement officials could query the database if they “had a reasonable articulable suspicion that the telephone number at issue was related to an ongoing federal criminal investigation.”

Officials argued that the blacked out information in the DEA agent’s declaration should remain sealed because it is related to other “law enforcement techniques” concerning “ongoing law enforcement activity.”

Hassanshahi’s lawyer, Mir Saied Kashani, said in a phone interview on Friday that he plans to ask Contreras to reopen the suppression issue, now that there is new information about the database.

“I believe it is unlawful for the government to use information that by law can only be gathered for drug enforcement and use it in any other case for any other investigation. We will pursue that position and appeal if necessary,” Kashani said. He added that the government’s disclosure raised broader questions about the scope of government surveillance.

Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ

For more on this story go to: http://www.nationallawjournal.com/legaltimes/id=1202715433085/Feds-Reveal-New-Details-About-Secret-Database-of-Phone-Records#ixzz3PMlVO4MZ


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