NSA tracking location data on hundreds of millions of cell phones, according to Snowden leak

The National Security Agency is tracking the location data and movements of hundreds of millions of mobile devices overseas and is also occasionally scooping up location data on U.S. citizens as part of a massive surveillance effort to track foreign intelligence targets, according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The documents, which were first reported by the Washington Post, reveal that the NSA is gathering nearly 5 billion records per day as part of the program. The tracking program gets the data by tapping into the "cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones," according to the Post, while the New York Times reported that the data comes from "fiber optic cables and other communication conduits that carry cell phone traffic."

Presumably, that means the NSA is tapping into backhaul networks that connect wireless networks to wired ones to carry traffic. According to the Post, one major collection point as part of the program "collects data from 27 telephone links known as OPC/DPC pairs, which refer to originating and destination points and which typically transfer traffic from one provider's internal network to another's. That data include cell tower identifiers, which can be used to locate a phone's location."

The NSA does not believe that there are many security threats amid all of the mobile location data it sweeps up, but that it does so in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools--known collectively as CO-TRABELER, according to the Post--let it search for unknown contacts of known intelligence targets by seeing how the movements of those targets cross paths with others.

However, the location data, especially when aggregated over time, could pose serious privacy concerns. Indeed, many commercial carriers have been using anonymized and aggregated location data in commercial advertising services. By developing a history of mobile devices' locations and cross-referencing that with millions of others over time, one can create a map of a user's movements.

The NSA does not target American's cell phone location data deliberately, but collects it "incidentally," the Post reported. Additionally, the agency often collects from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cell phones every year. The NSA said it has no way to calculate how many Americans' cell phone locations are captured as part of the program, and senior intelligence officials declined to offer an estimate, according to the Post.

Intelligence officials defended the program as lawful and said it is designed to track overseas intelligence targets. Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, told the Post that "there is no element of the intelligence community that under any authority is intentionally collecting bulk cellphone location information about cellphones in the United States."

In October, the Times reported that the NSA launched a secret pilot project in 2010 and 2011 to collect large amounts of data on the location of Americans' cell phones inside the United States, but NSA Director Keith Alexander said the data collected were never available for intelligence analysis purposes, and the project was halted because it had no "operational value."

In October, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said that the government was not collecting location information on Americans under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the NSA says gives it authority to collect telephone metadata on domestic calls directly from telephone companies.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement, spoke out against the newly disclosed NSA program, saying it was particularly egregious "given the substantial number of Americans having their movements recorded by the government."

For more:
- see this Washington Post article
- see this separate WaPo page
- see this NYT article
- see this CNET article

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NSA confirms pilot program that tried to track cell phone location data
Report: NSA can hack into Apple, Google and BlackBerry smartphone data
Report: Federal and local drug agents access massive AT&T call database
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