The National Security Agency is tracking location information on hundreds of millions of cellphones around the world every day, amounting to roughly 5 billion daily records, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, revealing that the agency makes "most efforts at communications security effectively futile."
As this latest revelation made possible by leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden shows, the collection of vast volumes of location data stands out among the agency's other surveillance programs, the Post reports:
In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among individuals using them.
According to the Post's reporting, the NSA scoops up the data — including "incidentally" picked up domestic cellphone data — in bulk "because its 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."
Further, these location grabbing surveillance tools "require the methodical collection and storage of location data on what amounts to a planetary scale," the Post continues, and calls "the NSA’s capabilities to track location... staggering," and "indicate that the agency is able to render most efforts at communications security effectively futile."
So much data is being collected that the agency can't keep up with processing and storing it all, the paper reports, citing a 2012 internal NSA briefing.
"It is staggering that a location-tracking program on this scale could be implemented without any public debate, particularly given the substantial number of Americans having their movements recorded by the government," stated Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, following the Washington Post report.
"The paths that we travel every day can reveal an extraordinary amount about our political, professional, and intimate relationships. The dragnet surveillance of hundreds of millions of cell phones flouts our international obligation to respect the privacy of foreigners and Americans alike," Crump continued. "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."