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NSA tracking cellphone locations worldwide



NSA tracking cellphone locations worldwide, Snowden documents show

By Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, Wednesday, December 4, 12:18 PM

The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a
day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, according to
top-secret documents and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials,
enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals â?? and map
their relationships â?? in ways that would have been previously

The records feed a vast database that stores information about the
locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices, according to
the officials and the documents, which were provided by former NSA
contractorEdward Snowden. New projects created to analyze that data
have provided the intelligence community with what amounts to a mass
surveillance tool.

(Video: How the NSA uses cellphone tracking to find and â??developâ?? targets)

The NSA does not target Americansâ?? location data by design, but the
agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts
of domestic cellphones â??incidentally,â?? a legal term that connotes a
foreseeable but not deliberate result.

One senior collection manager, speaking on condition of anonymity but
with permission from the NSA, said â??we are getting vast volumesâ?? of
location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that
connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as
well as foreign ones. Additionally, data is often collected from the
tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones
every year.

In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to
collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA
surveillance programsthat have been disclosed since June. Analysts can
find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and
expose hidden relationships among individuals using them.

(Graphic: How the NSA is tracking people right now)

U.S. officials said the programs that collect and analyze location
data are lawful and intended strictly to develop intelligence about
foreign targets.

Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said â??there is no
element of the intelligence community that under any authority is
intentionally collecting bulk cellphone location information about
cellphones in the United States.â??

The NSA has no reason to suspect that the movements of the
overwhelming majority of cellphone users would be relevant to national
security. Rather, it collects locations in bulk because its most
powerful analytic tools â?? known collectively as CO-TRAVELER â?? allow it
to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by
tracking people whose movements intersect.

Still, location data, especially when aggregated over time, is widely
regarded among privacy advocates as uniquely sensitive. Sophisticated
mathematical techniques enable NSA analysts to map cellphone ownersâ??
relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with
thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths.
Cellphones broadcast their locations even when they are not being used
to place a call or send a text.

(Video: Reporter Ashkan Soltani explains NSA collection of cellphone data)

CO-TRAVELER and related tools require the methodical collection and
storage of location data on what amounts to a planetary scale. The
government is tracking people from afar into confidential business
meetings or personal visits to medical facilities, hotel rooms,
private homes and other traditionally protected spaces.

â??One of the key components of location data, and why itâ??s so
sensitive, is that the laws of physics donâ??t let you keep it private,â??
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 â??the only way to
hide your location is to disconnect from our modern communication
system and live in a cave.â??

The NSA cannot know in advance which tiny fraction of 1 percent of the
records it may need, so it collects and keeps as many as it can â?? 27
terabytes, by one account, or more than double the text content of the
Library of Congressâ??s print collection.

The location programs have brought in such volumes of information,
according to a May 2012 internal NSA briefing, that they are
â??outpacing our ability to ingest, process and storeâ?? data. In the
ensuing year and a half, the NSA has been transitioning to a
processing system that provided it with greater capacity.

The possibility that the intelligence community has been collecting
location data, particularly of Americans, has long concerned privacy
advocates and some lawmakers. Three Democratic senators â?? Ron Wyden
(Ore.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Barbara Mikulski (Md.) â?? have
introduced an amendment to the 2014 defense spending bill that would
require U.S. intelligence agencies to say whether they have ever
collected or made plans to collect location data for â??a large number
of United States persons with no known connection to suspicious

NSA Director Keith Alexander disclosed in Senate testimony in October
that the NSA had run a pilot project in 2010 and 2011 to collect
â??samplesâ?? of U.S. cellphone location data. The data collected were
never available for intelligence analysis purposes, and the project
was discontinued because it had no â??operational value,â?? he said.

Alexander allowed that a broader collection of such data â??may be
something that is a future requirement for the country, but it is not
right now.â??

The number of Americans whose locations are tracked as part of the
NSAâ??s collection of data overseas is impossible to determine from the
Snowden documents alone, and senior intelligence officials declined to
offer an estimate.

â??Itâ??s awkward for us to try to provide any specific numbers,â?? one
intelligence official said in a telephone interview. An NSA
spokeswoman who took part in the call cut in to say the agency has no
way to calculate such a figure.

An intelligence lawyer, speaking with his agencyâ??s permission, said
location data are obtained by methods â??tuned to be looking outside the
United States,â?? a formulation he repeated three times. When U.S.
cellphone data are collected, he said, the data are not covered by the
Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against unreasonable
searches and seizures.

According to top-secret briefing slides, the NSA pulls in location
data around the world from 10 major â??sigads,â?? or signals intelligence
activity designators.

A sigad known as STORMBREW, for example, relies on two unnamed
corporate partners described only as ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT. According
to an NSA site inventory, the companies administer the NSAâ??s â??physical
systems,â?? or interception equipment, and â??NSA asks nicely for

STORMBREW collects data from 27 telephone links known as OPC/DPC
pairs, which refer to originating and destination points and which
typically transfer traffic from one providerâ??s internal network to
anotherâ??s. That data include cell tower identifiers, which can be used
to locate a phoneâ??s location.

The agencyâ??s access to carriersâ?? networks appears to be vast.

â??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,â?? said Matt Blaze, an associate professor of computer and
information science at the University of Pennsylvania. â??This â??flatâ??
trust model means that a surprisingly large number of entities have
access to data about customers that they never actually do business
with, and an intelligence agency â?? hostile or friendly â?? can get â??one
stop shoppingâ?? to an expansive range of subscriber data just by
compromising a few carriers.â??

Some documents in the Snowden archive suggest that acquisition of U.S.
location data is routine enough to be cited as an example in training
materials. In an October 2012 white paper on analytic techniques, for
example, the NSAâ??s counterterrorism analysis unit cites two U.S.-based
carriers to illustrate the challenge of correlating the travels of
phone users on different mobile networks. Asked about that, a U.S.
intelligence official said the example was poorly chosen and did not
represent the programâ??s foreign focus.

The NSAâ??s capabilities to track location are staggering, based on the
Snowden documents, and indicate that the agency is able to render most
efforts at communications security effectively futile.

Like encryption and anonymity tools online, which are used by
dissidents, journalists and terrorists alike, security-minded behavior
â?? using disposable cellphones and switching them on only long enough
to make brief calls â?? marks a user for special scrutiny. CO-TRAVELER
takes note, for example, when a new telephone connects to a cell tower
soon after another nearby device is used for the last time.

Side-by-side security efforts â?? when nearby devices power off and on
together over time â?? â??assist in determining whether co-travelers are
associated â?¦ through behaviorally relevant relationships,â?? according
to the 24-page white paper, which was developed by the NSA in
partnership with the National Geospatial Agency, the Australian
Signals Directorate and private contractors.

A central feature of each of these tools is that they do not rely on
knowing a particular target in advance, or even suspecting one. They
operate on the full universe of data in the NSAâ??s FASCIA repository,
which stores trillions of metadata records, of which a large but
unknown fraction include locations.

The most basic analytic tools map the date, time, and location of
cellphones to look for patterns or significant moments of overlap.
Other tools compute speed and trajectory for large numbers of mobile
devices, overlaying the electronic data on transportation maps to
compute the likely travel time and determine which devices might have

To solve the problem of undetectable surveillance against CIA officers
stationed overseas, one contractor designed an analytic model that
would carefully record the case officerâ??s path and look for other
mobile devices in steady proximity.

â??Results have not been validated by operational analysts,â?? the report said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report. Soltani is an independent
security researcher and consultant.