US intelligence officials say the National Security Agency did conduct a secret pilot project in 2010 and 2011 to test the collection of metadata about the location of Americans’ cellphones but the agency did not continue the program.
The project used data from cellphone towers to locate American citizens’ cellphones.
The New York Times reported Wednesday morning about the project and James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, confirmed it later in the day at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“In 2010 and 2011, NSA received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format, but that data was not used for any other purpose and was never available for intelligence analysis purposes,” Clapper said in his testimony.
He said that the super spy agency had promised to seek the approval of a secret surveillance court in the future before any locational data was collected using Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the provision the government says is the legal basis for the NSA’s once-secret program under which it collects logs of all domestic calls from telephone companies.
But Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Intelligence Committee, has raised concerns about the project. He said in a statement that there was more to know about the matter than the government had now declassified.
“After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law-abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret – even when the truth would not compromise national security,” Wyden said.
Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden shows that the NSA changed a policy several years ago to allow “contact chaining” of Americans who had been in touch with foreign intelligence suspects, using phone and e-mail logging data, according to an article published by the New York Times on Sep. 28.
The article also described the process of data “enrichment,” by which other data – including information that is publicly or commercially available – is added to flesh out analysts’ understanding of people associated with various phone numbers in the social network analysis.
It is not known how many Americans’ data was used in this process, according to the newspaper.
NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who also testified Wednesday at the hearing, criticized the Times’ article saying it was “flat wrong” that the agency was “creating dossiers on Americans from social networks.”
“We’re not creating social networks on our families.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said Wednesday that he was drafting legislation to eliminate the agency’s ability to systematically obtain Americans’ calling records while Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein was warning that ending the bulk call records program would increase the risk of a terrorist attack.