The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, according to top-secret documents and U.S. intelligence officials. The process enables the agency to track the movements of individuals – and map their relationships – in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.
The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices, according to the officials and the documents, which were provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
New projects created to analyze that data have provided the intelligence community with what amounts to a mass surveillance tool.
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.
One senior collection manager, speaking on condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said we are getting vast volumes of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data is often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.
U.S. officials said the programs that collect and analyze location data are lawful and intended strictly to develop intelligence about foreign targets.
The NSA collects locations in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.
Still, location data, is regarded among privacy advocates as uniquely sensitive. Techniques enable NSA analysts to map cellphone owners relationships by correlating their movement with 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.