We remember it clearly. Back in June, when the first NSA leaks emerged, we learned that the agency was collecting, en masse, the "metadata" from Americans' cell phones. What "metadata" entailed was not completely clear, but it was generally understood to include incoming and outgoing call records, but not, definitely not, geolocation data, which the agency claimed that it "chos[e] not to," gather reports The Wall Street Journal.
Six months later, we'd heard testimony that the agency did collect such data domestically, though only as a pilot program. And this week, in another leak, we learned that the agency did collect such data abroad, which "incidentally" swept up domestic users' data as well, reports The Washington Post.
Plus, despite new denials, training materials indicate that domestic tracking has been at least contemplated, if not carried out.
How it Works
It's simple. Your phone radios the nearest cell tower, even when not placing a call or sending a text message. It does so repeatedly, and when you move closer to a new tower, it does so again. That makes it easy for a cell company to track your phone's location.
Now, imagine you toss your "burner" (a cheap, prepaid phone) and pick up a new one. When one signal is turned off, and another is turned on immediately afterwards, that garners scrutiny. When a phone is turned off between calls, presumably to avoid tracking, that also garners scrutiny. And when the NSA is tracking a specific suspect, and his phone travels the same path as two other phones, which subsequently go their own way, the agency can now track that person's co-conspirators (or family).
Five billion records per day.
The amount of data is so vast that the NSA initially had trouble processing it all. Not to worry -- they upgraded their systems. And there is no doubt that the data includes Americans' phones locations, incidentally or not. The Post notes that domestic data appears in training materials:
"In an October 2012 white paper on analytic techniques, for example, the NSA's counterterrorism analysis unit describes the challenges of tracking customers who use two different mobile networks, saying it would be hard to correlate a user on the T-Mobile network with one on Verizon. Asked about that, a U.S. intelligence official said the example was poorly chosen and did not represent the program's foreign focus."
Are You Being Watched?
Do you carry a cell phone? Ever travel abroad? Ever call someone who lives abroad? If the program truly only targets foreign phones, you'll only be tracked if you are abroad, or maybe if you call someone who lives abroad, though truthfully, the actual scope is a bit unclear at this point. Plus, even if the NSA isn't tracking you, are their British counterparts, the GCHQ, doing so?
Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post that avoiding tracking requires a person to go completely dark, noting that "the only way to hide your location is to disconnect from our modern communication system and live in a cave."
How many people do you know who don't carry a cell phone? One? None?
Does this worry you, or do I simply need to have my medication checked? Tweet us your opinion @FindLawLP.
- Infographic - How the NSA is tracking people right now (Washington Post)
- NSA Phone Tracking is Even More Extensive Than We Thought (FindLaw's Technologist Blog)
- To Counter NSA Snooping, Yahoo, Others Encrypting User Data (FindLaw's Technologist Blog)
- FindLaw's Legal Technology Center (FindLaw)