Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has given the Washington Post another set of documents, and they reportedly reveal that the NSA collects 5 billion records per day about global cell phone locations. This information is funneled directly into a database, and Americans’ records are only included “incidentally,” the Post reports.
All NSA officials who spoke with the publication gave assurances that there was no intentional collection on U.S. citizens and that the program collecting cell phone locations is, as one official put it, “tuned to be looking outside the United States.”
To obtain the geographical location of cell phones, the security agency taps into cables that connect global mobile networks. As a result, Americans’ data are scooped up when they travel abroad. Cell phones are used to track movements, mapping patterns to find points of intersection. The NSA refers to this analysis as “Co-Traveler.”
Signal intelligence activity designators, or “signads,” assist the NSA in gathering the information, the Post reports. Ten signads bring in most of the information, according to the documents provided by Snowden. From what has been printed, it appears that the signads have specific names. One called STORMBREW collaborates with corporate partners given the aliases ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV in October, NSA Director Keith Alexander discussed how the agency collects data from corporations. ”NSA does collect information on terrorists and on our national intelligence priorities, but we are not authorized to go into a U.S. company’s servers and take data,” he said. Instead, a court order is used or the company complies with the NSA.
Twenty-seven telephone links are included in STORMBREW’s reach, the Post says. It knows when cell phone traffic moves about from one network to another and collects information indicating where the cell phone tower being used is located. Turning off location services does not prevent tracking, because the phone is still sending signals to the towers while it is turned on.
Matt Blaze, am associate professor of computer and information sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to the Washington Post that people are sharing their information with other carriers as well as the NSA. “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,” Blaze said.
Out of all the information collected, the NSA will ultimately use less than 1 percent — unable to predict in advance which portion it will need, the agency keeps all of the data.
After details of the documents were published, Catherine Crump, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, released a statement through the ACLU’s website. Crump was shocked that there was no public debate prior to the policy being implemented.
“The paths that we travel every day can reveal an extraordinary amount about our political, professional, and intimate relationships,” Crump said, adding that the policy is disrespectful to privacy rights. “The government should be targeting its surveillance at those suspected of wrongdoing, not assembling massive associational databases that by their very nature record the movements of a huge number of innocent people.”
The willingness of NSA officials to speak about the documents reveals an attempt to handle the public side of the agency more transparently, a problem Alexander acknowledged in his Bloomberg TV interview. At that time, he said the NSA does not ”get out in front of the press for one reason. We don’t want to make a mistake. If we make a mistake, there’s a chance a terrorist act would get through and people die, and that’s because we were stupid in public. And we don’t want to do that.”
Reports have recently surfaced that intelligence officials fear Snowden holds a “doomsday cache” of highly classified documents. Appearing on Fox News Sunday, former NSA Director Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force general, said: “I’ve seen those reports, Chris. I have no reason to doubt them.”