NSA tracking mobile phone locations worldwide

A report based on Edward Snowden's leaked documents shows the NSA collects billions of cellphone records daily

The National Security Agency building in Fort Meade, Md.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File

The National Security Agency can track the location of millions of cellphones around the world, and collects 5 billion pieces of cellphone data from outside the U.S. daily, including from cellphones belonging to Americans abroad, according to a Washington Post report.

The newspaper says the NSA also "inadvertently" gathers some U.S. location records when it taps into worldwide mobile networks.

The program is detailed in documents given to the Post by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, who is currently avoiding U.S. prosecution in Russia.

A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the report.

The Post report says that because the NSA doesn't know what cellphone data might be needed, the agency stores as much as it can. That amounts to 27 terabytes of data, or as the Post describes it "more than double the text content of the Library of Congress's print collection."

One internal NSA briefing shows that so much data is collected that the NSA has trouble processing and storing it in a timely manner. The NSA taps into the data by surveilling shared networks that cellphone companies use, according to the report.

Click for the latest news and analysis on the NSA leaks.

"Many shared databases, such as those used for roaming, are available in their complete form to any carrier who requires access to any part of it," Matt Blaze, an associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania told the Post. "This 'flat' trust model means that a surprisingly large number of entities have access to data about customers that they never actually do business with, and an intelligence agency — hostile or friendly — can get 'one stop shopping' to an expansive range of subscriber data just by compromising a few carriers."

The NSA is also able to track activity it deems suspicious. For example, if a disposable cellphone is turned on only long enough to make phone calls, it is flagged in the NSA's system, the Post's report says. When devices next to each other are turned on or off around the same time, that can also raise a flag.

NSA officials have said no agency program gathers data on U.S. cellphones inside the U.S. But NSA director Keith Alexander told the Senate in October that a pilot project in 2010 and 2011 collected samples of U.S. cellphone location data.

Alexander said at the Senate hearing that collecting Americans' cellphone data "may be something that is a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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