NSA Tracks Civilian Cell Phone Locations
December 5, 2013

NSA Tracks Civilian Cell Phone Locations Worldwide, Says Washington Post

Enid Burns for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

New evidence shows that the National Security Agency (NSA) gathers location data from cell phones around the world. The Washington Post broke the story Wednesday, with findings from documents and interviews with unnamed US intelligence officials as well as documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The NSA gathers nearly five billion records a day tracking users on cell phones around the world, according to the report from Washington Post journalists Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani. Records are used to track the whereabouts of people of interest and help learn the patterns of these targets as well as identify their associates.

The tracking of citizens worldwide via cell phone signals is quite broad. Gellman and Soltani spoke to someone at the NSA, on the condition of anonymity, who said "we are getting vast volumes," referring to the data from around the world obtained by tapping into cables that connect mobile networks. The NSA is most interested in global networks that serve US cell phones as well as foreign cell phones. The data encompasses records from tens of millions of Americans as they travel abroad each year.

The data recovered from most Americans is "incidental," the report explained. The NSA is interested in gaining information on specific individuals. "The NSA does not target Americans' location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones 'incidentally,' a legal term that connotes a foreseeable but not deliberate result," the article said.

The NSA's priority is to gather information on foreign targets. However, data on Americans' movements are also tracked in the surveillance activities conducted by the NSA.

A companion video interview with Ashkan Soltani explains the NSA's methods for collecting data from cell phones.

The NSA activities fall under the legal umbrella of the Executive Order, which permits such surveillance where it is constitutionally allowed - a set of parameters that have been greatly expanded since 9/11 and the advent of the Patriot Acts. US officials say the program is lawful and that its intent is strictly to develop intelligence about foreign targets, the Washington Post reports. However many argue that the surveillance techniques have a damaging impact on civilian privacy.

"In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them," the article stated.

The data feed analytic tools known collectively as CO-TRAVELER, the paper reports. The data collected help the analytics tool look for unknown associates and known intelligence targets. The tool tracks individuals' movements and where they intersect with those of others.

Privacy advocates claim that the location data, when aggregated over time, is "uniquely sensitive," the Washington Post reports.

The NSA is unable to quantify how many Americans are tracked under this surveillance initiative. A senior intelligence official told the Post it is "awkward for us to try to provide any specific numbers."