NSA May Not Be Collecting Your Location Data From Telco Dragnet… Because It Gets It From Your GPS

from the under-this-program dept

As we noted last week, Senator Ron Wyden has been repeatedly asking the intelligence community about whether or not they’re tracking the location on any Americans, and the intelligence community has steadfastly avoided giving a straight answer (as they do). Specifically, he was asking about whether or not the NSA has in the past, or has plans to, get location data on Americans in bulk. The NSA’s Keith Alexander did his “under this program” two step, in which he insists that they are not doing so under this program and at this time. That leaves open other programs and at other times.

Earlier today, we discussed the NYT’s coverage of how the NSA has set up its own shadow social network, including information from Americans (none of which involves a warrant). In that piece, they describe how location info is part of what’s included:

A 2009 PowerPoint presentation provided more examples of data sources available in the “enrichment” process, including location-based services like GPS and TomTom, online social networks, billing records and bank codes for transactions in the United States and overseas.

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, General Alexander was asked if the agency ever collected or planned to collect bulk records about Americans’ locations based on cellphone tower data. He replied that it was not doing so as part of the call log program authorized by the Patriot Act, but said a fuller response would be classified.

So, apparently they are getting GPS data. And if they were getting it from TomTom and other GPS services, then you have to imagine that they might now also include GPS data from the phones that so many of us carry around today. GPS data is even more accurate than cell-site data. And, of course, the data in “this program” appears to mostly come via Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. The program that Keith Alexander was referring to in his remarks was the dragnet collection of business records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. So, it’s not difficult to see how Alexander might be technically “accurate” with the “not this program” dance, even as lots of Americans’ location data is being sucked up via GPS (and potentially cell-site locations) under 702…

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Comments on “NSA May Not Be Collecting Your Location Data From Telco Dragnet… Because It Gets It From Your GPS”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Re: How to have fun with NSA

1- buy several devices fully registered with your name, preferably with your credit card to make sure the “dots” are connected
2- discuss terrorism plots on places terrorists would never do it such as Gmail, Skype and Facebook and the likes but NSA does monitor for useless data (use supposedly private methods so your neighbor won’t call the cops)
3- Leave your gadgets with gps and other traceable stuff (such as credit cards) in different places. Preferably scattered throughout the world (bonus point for unspeakable countries)
4- Have people use those gadgets regularly
5- laugh as you imagine the NSA agents tilting their heads puzzled on how you can teleport from one country to another

Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well maybe…But there are other ways of tracking you. OnStar? Have we heard a word from the Government bailed out company GM about what they do or do not provide to the government about tracking info? The NSA might be all up in their DBs finding data.

Don’t forget traffic cams, or highway traffic cams, or the billion other cameras that are tracking your movements that the NSA has found some way to tap in to.

1984 was a fantasy. The reality is a bit more detailed.

Jaime Frontero says:

Re: silverscarcat @#1

Not really. Start here:


It gets very involved. If you spend three or four hours using creative keywords, you’ll be shocked at what’s on the table.

The fact is, that all new cars have some kind of black box in them. Most have wireless connectivity, other than GPS. Soon – very soon – ALL new cars will have wireless DOT/NSA-readable devices, by law.

And really, all I’ll be buying in the future is cool used cars – older sports cars, and so on. It’s actually cheaper to buy a used car and fix it to the max than it is to buy a new one, if you’re careful.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yes and no. TomTom has devices which actually use the cell network to get better traffic coverage. They call it HD traffic and use ‘live’ services. So obviously they have to connect to a provider to get the info.
The devices with the regular traffic information are passive devices, and they use RDS services from regular FM radio to obtain their traffic updates.

K`Tetch (profile) says:

a handy thing I found on my wife’s phone. On the samsung S3, under the back cover you will see 10 little screws. If they’re not 100% tight, the GPS doesn’t work. So, while most people tighten them up to get their GPS to work, you can loosen them to stop it working.

I don’t know why exactly this happens (I’m not risking my wife’s wrath) but there’s something for people to try.

K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I just tested it with my droid incredible running 2.3.

turned off location services, went to the android device manager (https://www.google.com/android/devicemanager), 10 seconds, and it had my position almost exactly on the map (within 3m)

I even saw the gps icon flash for a moment (and theres no geotagging on my networking gear and my ip resolves to 25 miles away. It has no cell service. The only way to have got the location is via GPS.

Anonymous Coward says:

Since the NSA is not openly denying it and Senator Wyden is asking specifically this question in public he already knows the answer and NSA has another it doesn’t want to own up to.

This is the exact same method that was used to question about bulk data retention on emails by US Citizens.

It’s plain from the repeat, the answer is yes, they do.

Pacoh Lohlo says:

5 years ago, an iPhone with no service still displayed location

On a road trip, the “blue dot” was there and moving as we drove. Even though there was no “map”, I got the feeling that any agency involved in “public safety” could view this data. From Forest Rangers to the Feds, they have their own map view of anyone’s meta location data – whether the phone is subscribed to a network or not. I sure feel a lot safer than I did back in pre-Y2k!

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: 5 years ago, an iPhone with no service still displayed location

It’s a little more nuanced that. That the iPhone can still obtain GPS data without having cell service is normal and expected — GPS is a one-way thing, and all your phone is doing is reading the signals that the GPS satellites are transmitting. It does not need to communicate with anyone else to do this (and it isn’t sending those GPS coordinate to anyone else unless you have service).

However, any cell phone — smart or not — connects to the cell towers even if there is no active service. This is a good thing — you can use any cell phone, even ones without service, to make 911 calls. The flip side is that the cell phone is talking with cell towers, and so your location can be deduced through triangulation from the towers. This has nothing whatsoever to do with GPS.

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