Top-secret documents and interviews show that the US National Security Agency collects almost 5 billion cellphone records a day, enabling the agency to track individuals’ movements and map their relationships.
The documents, provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, show that the collected records are stored in a vast database containing location information of at least hundreds of millions of devices, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
According to the leaks, new projects have been created to analyze the huge amount of data, providing the US intelligence community with an unimaginable mass surveillance tool.
A senior collection manager, who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said, “We are getting vast volumes” of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve US cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data are often collected on tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.
The scale, scope and potential impact of the new report puts this spying tool on top of all the other NSA surveillance programs exposed since June, the report said. NSA agents can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among individuals using them.
US officials insist that the programs which gather and analyze location data are legal and are intended to develop intelligence about foreign targets.
The NSA’s most powerful analytic tools – known collectively as CO-TRAVELER – allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.
Cellphones broadcast their locations even when they are not being used to place a call or send a text. The NSA stores these data and uses them to map cellphone owners’ relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths.
“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,” said Chris Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. 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 is collecting as many data as it can, even though there might be no need for such databases currently and they can only be used in future. One account says the US spy agency has collected 27 terabytes of data, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’s print collection.