Personal Liberty Poll
The latest leak in the ongoing trickle of information Edward Snowden supplied to newspapers about the National Security Agency (NSA) is a whopper: worldwide, the NSA gathers close to 5 billion records on the whereabouts and digital “relationships” of cell phone users each day.
According to The Washington Post, which broke the story Wednesday, the NSA taps directly into the physical backbone of the global telecommunications infrastructure, “enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.”
The NSA does not target Americans’ location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones “incidentally,” 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 “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 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 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.
The government, of course, says the surveillance is perfectly legal, since learning things about people’s personal lives – such as whom they’re contacting and what their daily habits are – isn’t a goal, but rather a side effect, of the terror-oriented spying.
“[L]ocation data, especially when aggregated over time, is widely regarded among privacy advocates as uniquely sensitive,” the Post story interjects. “Sophisticated mathematical techniques enable NSA analysts 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. Cellphones broadcast their locations even when they are not being used to place a call or send a text.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was among the first of what’s certain to be many civil liberty groups to respond to the news Wednesday afternoon, releasing this statement:
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. 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. 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.