NSA Collects 5 Billion Phone Location Records Per Day

The latest NSA revelation shows the agency uses complex tools to learn who suspects associate with by tracking billions of location records.

NSA Collects 5 Billion Phone Location Records Per Day
The Washington Post

It's the recurring headline of 2013: the NSA spies on cell phones, collects staggering amounts of data, and Americans are "incidentally" swept up in it all. But this time the agency isn't just monitoring calls — it's monitoring the users' relationships.

A Washington Post exclusive that relied on Edward Snowden's leaked data says the agency taps into cell phone networks to record nearly 5 billion location records every day, tracking users by which cell phone towers they connect to.

But it's not just the users' locations the agency is looking for. Using sophisticated data analysis tools, the agency identifies what it calls co-travelers. (Via The Washington Post)

"Say a target is moving through a crowded city with lots of foot traffic. Potential co-travelers will be ones that appear alongside a target through multiple cell phone tower areas." (Via The Washington Post)

By tracking foreign targets, the agency can tell who keeps meeting up with whom, helping intelligence agencies piece together a map of the targets' working relationships.

And like most of this year's NSA revelations, U.S. citizens are incidentally spied on as well, including every American who takes their cell phone abroad — which the agency says is perfectly legal because Americans aren't the primary targets. (Via National Security Agency)

Of all the NSA leaks so far, this one might be the most worrying to privacy advocates. A writer for GigaOM explains location data gives the agency a detailed look at individuals' entire day-to-day lives.

"Cell phone location patterns can be deeply revealing and, unlike voice or internet data, it's not possible to disguise movements through encryption or private networks."

In fact, anyone who does try to disguise their movements, say by turning their cell phones off while traveling or frequently switching phones, is singled out for special scrutiny by the NSA's software. (Via CNN)

And of all the leaks so far, this one might also be the biggest, in terms of how much raw data the agency is having to deal with.

"According to NSA documents, the amount of data flowing into their databases as a result of this program is outpacing the agency's ability to ingest, process and store it." (Via RT)

The NSA says it doesn't know — and has no way of knowing — how many U.S. citizens' location data is being stored and analyzed.