According to documents provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency is gathering 5 billion records per day regarding the whereabouts of cellphones. And, of course, the NSA claims any information found about users of those devices during this widespread, paranoid data collection is merely incidental.
Using possible threats as an excuse, the agency doesn’t discriminate between the “target” and its “co-travelers” when accumulating information from mobile signal towers. That means any cellphones in the vicinity of a so-called threat (even if the user is moving through a crowded city) have their location recorded. How much further has the NSA invaded everyone’s privacy under the absurd guise of protection from terrorism? Only time and Edward Snowden will tell.
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.
U.S. officials said the programs that collect and analyze location data are lawful and intended strictly to develop intelligence about foreign targets.
Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said “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.”
The NSA has no reason to suspect that the movements of the overwhelming majority of cellphone users would be relevant to national security. Rather, it collects locations in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools — known collectively as CO-TRAVELER — allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.
Still, location data, especially when aggregated over time, is widely regarded among privacy advocates as uniquely sensitive. Sophisticated mathematical techniques enable NSA analysts to map cellphone owners’ relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths. Cellphones broadcast their locations even when they are not being used to place a call or send a text message.