NSA Is Tracking Mobile Phone Location On So Many People It Can't Handle The Data Storage

from the another-shoe-dropping? dept

We all know that Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been hinting strongly about the NSA tracking people's location via mobile phone location data. Since the Snowden documents started getting reported on, Wyden especially had ramped up his hints that mobile phone location data still undisclosed would be the real shocker. Back in October, it was revealed that the NSA had done a "pilot program" in the US to track people's locations via their mobile phones, but stopped the program and never used the data. In response to that, Senator Wyden hinted that there was much more to come:
“After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law-abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret — even when the truth would not compromise national security,” Mr. Wyden said.
It would appear that "the real story secret" has started to come out via some new Snowden documents reported on in the Washington Post by Bart Gellman and Ashkan Soltani. Basically, while the NSA may not be spying on the location of Americans in the US via their mobile phones, they appear to be collecting location data of pretty much anyone all over the rest of the world to the tune of 5 billion records a day -- so much info that the NSA was having trouble storing it all (now you know what some of the Bluffdale datacenter in Utah is for).
The NSA cannot know in advance which tiny fraction of 1 percent of the records it may need, so it collects and keeps as many as it can — 27 terabytes, by one account, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’s print collection.

The location programs have brought in such volumes of information, according to a May 2012 internal NSA briefing, that they are “outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store” data. In the ensuing year and a half, the NSA has been transitioning to a processing system that provided it with greater capacity.
The NSA defends the program by saying that it uses the location data to find "unknown associates of known intelligence targets." Basically, it's tracking where everyone goes, just in case people end up spending time with people the NSA deems as being terrorists. However, that also means that the NSA has an astounding amount of really personal data on where pretty much everyone goes outside of the US, including who they meet with. The ability to abuse that data should be rather obvious. From that data, you can not only determine private business meetings, but you can figure out what doctors people go to, if they're cheating on their spouse, etc. And, given last week's revelations that the NSA has no qualms (at all) about using data on non-terrorists to embarrass them for the sake of embarrassing them, it's not difficult to see how the NSA might do the same over information gleaned from this vast trough of location information.

And, yes, despite the claims by the NSA, it appears to end up getting a ton of information on Americans as well, even if it's not actively collecting data within the US (ah, more "incidental" collections):
Some documents in the Snowden archive suggest that acquisition of U.S. location data is routine enough to be cited as an example in training materials. In an October 2012 white paper on analytic techniques, for example, the NSA’s counterterrorism analysis unit cites two U.S.-based carriers to illustrate the challenge of correlating the travels of phone users on different mobile networks. Asked about that, a U.S. intelligence official said the example was poorly chosen and did not represent the program’s foreign focus.
Elsewhere in the article, they quote NSA officials repeatedly saying that the program is "tuned to be looking outside the United States," but not saying it only collects info outside the US. Also, they make clear, once a person leaves the US, the NSA no longer believes the 4th Amendment applies to them, so their location is fair game in this giant database.. Asked for specific numbers, an NSA person said:
“It’s awkward for us to try to provide any specific numbers..."
And, at that point, they were cut off by an NSA spokesperson who didn't want the person to go any further. In other words, it's "awkward" for the NSA to admit that it's spying on pretty much everyone. Everyone.

Oh, and as for the methods used by some to avoid this kind of thing: getting prepaid lines, disposing of phones regularly, etc. Apparently the NSA is tracking that and it leads to greater suspicion:
Like encryption and anonymity tools online, which are used by dissidents, journalists and terrorists alike, security-minded behavior — using disposable cellphones and switching them on only long enough to make brief calls — marks a user for special scrutiny. CO-TRAVELER takes note, for example, when a new telephone connects to a cell tower soon after another nearby device is used for the last time.
The NSA defends this program, arguing (as it always does) that there's nothing wrong with doing what it's doing. Billions of people living around the globe might disagree.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, co-traveller, gps, location data, mobile phones, nsa, nsa surveillance, ron wyden

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  1. icon
    nasch (profile), 5 Dec 2013 @ 7:35am

    Re: Re:

    If anything the mass surveillance poses a very real threat to the American republic, as shown by the politically motivated targeting of groups by the IRS

    The IRS has nothing to do with the NSA surveillance. Those are two completely unrelated problems.

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