As part of a “mass surveillance tool” on a “planetary scale,” the National Security Agency (NSA) is tracking the whereabouts of “at least hundreds of millions of [mobile] devices,” such as cellphones, at a rate of “nearly 5 billion records a day,” according to the Washington Post.
“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,” the Post reports on the basis of the latest document dump from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. “Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them.”
In other words, if you have a mobile device of any kind, the U.S. government can tell where you are, where you’ve been, and whom you know. Supposedly this will enable the government to locate and monitor previously unknown associates of intelligence targets, but it’s not hard to imagine its being used to intimidate domestic political opponents or even to give drones a fix on those the president has decided are deserving of death — even if, as in the case of the teenaged son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the victim is chosen on the basis of guilt by association.
The NSA collects the location data “by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones,” writes the Post. “Additionally, data are often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.”
Much, if not all, of this is done in cooperation with telecommunications companies. One of the NSA’s 10 major data-collection points “relies on two unnamed corporate partners,” the Post explains. “According to an NSA site inventory, the companies administer the NSA’s ‘physical systems,’ or interception equipment, and ‘NSA asks nicely for tasking/updates.’”
“The agency’s access to carriers’ networks appears to be vast,” the paper adds. Merely by gaining the cooperation of a few carriers, the NSA can obtain access to complete databases of customer information, including device locations. Those locations, by the way, can be determined even if the devices are idle: As long as a mobile device is on, it is usually transmitting location signals to nearby towers.
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