The NSA Tracks Location Data For Hundreds Of Millions Of Phones Worldwide

The intelligence agency captures five billion location records a day, reveals a new batch of Snowden documents

The US National Security Agency is tracking the locations of hundreds of millions of mobile phones, suggests new information revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden and published by the Washington Post.

The intelligence organisation has obtained access to the cable infrastructure that connects cellular networks to each other, allowing it to store five billion location records every day, belonging to both the US and foreign customers.

The newspaper calls it one of the most obvious examples of privacy infringement to emerge since Snowden had first started leaking the details of the NSA surveillance programmes in June. However, most mobile device owners are already giving away their location to app developers and marketers, and network carriers freely share such databases between each other.

Just as expected

By design, every mobile device is constantly broadcasting its location – even when not used for calls, texts or accessing the Internet. Earlier this year, a team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had proved that using a complex mathematical model, it was possible to identify a smartphone user by just four pieces of anonymised location data.

srep01376-f1A spokesman for the agency has confirmed that it was collecting “vast volumes” of location data, as much as 27 terabytes per day by some accounts. In fact, the number of records was so great that in the middle of 2012, the organisation had to adopt new IT systems just to keep from being overwhelmed.

In accordance with legal requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, the NSA does not target US citizens deliberately, but their data still gets recorded in the system “incidentally”, especially when they leave the country to travel.

Some of the NSA training materials leaked by Snowden suggest that the collection of data on US soil was fairly common, as they feature examples that refer to local network operators, including T-Mobile and Verizon. An NSA spokesman later claimed that these examples were simply illustrative.

According to the Washington Post, access to carrier infrastructure allows the agency to find mobile phones anywhere in the world using ten “sigdads” – signals intelligence activity designators. After collection, the data is processed automatically using a suite of analytics tools codenamed CO-TRAVELLER, which is able to find associates of known intelligence targets.

The system pays special attention to the behaviour that suggests the target is trying to avoid tracking, by using disposable phones or keeping them switched off between calls.

Such large scale collection of location data is especially worrying because unlike personal communications which you can encrypt or cookies which you can delete, this type of information has to be exchanged with the network in order for the device to function.

However, before lambasting the NSA it is worth remembering that most mobile device owners routinely give their location data away to technology and marketing companies. By the middle of 2013, a third of the applications available on Apple’s App Store accessed users’ geographic location. Indoor navigation start-up Skyhook resolves 400 million users’ Wi-Fi locations every day, and the geo-location of around half of all iOS and Android traffic is available to ad networks.

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