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Five billion records daily: The NSA's cache of cell phone location data

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The latest revelation coming out of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaked NSA documents has emerged. In a Washington Post story published Wednesday, it was revealed that the NSA is tracking cell phone locations -- and globally.

That is bad enough, but the sheer numbers involved makes the report worse. The NSA is gathering nearly five billion records a day on the locations of cell phones around the world. The information comes via leaked secret documents, but also from interviews with anonymous U.S. intelligence officials.

With that much data, the NSA is able to track the movements of individuals, mapping their relationships, in ways that would have been previously only been dreamed of. Still, this sort of idea -- tracking, as well as making the connections between individuals clear -- is why any instance of illicit tracking, such as Apple's oops back in 2011, a big deal.

Notably, the NSA does not target the location data of Americans by design. However, the agency acquires a substantial amount of data on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones “incidentally,” according to the report. The use of the word "incidentally" is as a legal term that "connotes a foreseeable, but not deliberate result."

The reason for this "incidental" data is that, as one anonymous senior collection manager -- who, perhaps surprising, spoke with the permission of the NSA -- said, the NSA gets its location data by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally. Those cables serve not just foreign cell phones, but U.S. devices as well.

In addition -- and obviously -- Americans that travel overseas will have their data acquired, as well.

The NSA, however, claimed that no acquisition of location data is taking place on domestic soil. Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said:

There is no element of the intelligence community that under any authority is intentionally collecting bulk cellphone location information about cellphones in the United States.

Additionally, U.S. officials said these programs, which both collect and analyze cell phone location data, are lawful and intended strictly to develop intelligence regarding foreign targets.

This goes far deeper than using GPS data, too. Since cell phones ping nearby towers, anyone who has watched any of those reality-based police reenactments knows that such data can be used to determine location. It's that sort of acquisition that is going on here. Chris Soghoian, principal technologist at the ACLU warned:

One of the key components of location data, and why it’s so sensitive, is that the laws of physics don’t let you keep it private. People who value their privacy can encrypt their e-mails and disguise their online identities, but “the only way to hide your location is to disconnect from our modern communication system and live in a cave.

The NSA uses 10 “sigads,” or signals intelligence activity designators to gather data. For example, the previously outed program STORMBREW uses two unnamed corporate partners, codenamed ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT, which administer the NSA’s “physical systems,” or interception equipment,

Reportedly, STORMBREW collects data from 27 telephone links (OPC/DPC pairs, or originating and destination points). The data gleaned includes tower identifiers, which can then be used to pinpoint the location of a cell phone, smartphone, or tablet.

The size of the data acquired is vast. While the NSA is understood to keep only about one percent of the records, that amounts to some 27 terabytes, according to Snowden's documents.

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