We are becoming almost inured to the scale NSA spying as revealed by whistleblowing hero Edward Snowden, but sometimes the sheer numbers involved can take our breath away. The NSA uses mobile phones to track and keep records of almost 5 billion people every day, storing them in a huge database. This amounts to around data about two trillion people per year!
This video by The Washington Post shows how the NSA uses cellphones to track and ‘develop’ targets
As The Washington Post observes, ‘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’.
Unlike other forms of data which can be hidden using services such as VPN, location data is always available unless you completely eschew modern technology (simply turning off GPS on your smartphone, or using an old style mobile ‘dumbphone’ will not help, as your location can be determined using nearby cellphone towers), and provides a worryingly intimate view where you go (and when), what you get up to, who you meet and associate, and more.
Questions about the ethics and legality of collecting this information have inevitably revolved around data collected about US citizens (lucky them). Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, was keen to emphasise that any information collected about Americans was only incidental, ‘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,’ and is therefore perfectly legal.
Most of the ‘vast volumes’ of data collected is of course of no interest to the NSA, but as it has no way of knowing what records it may or may not need, the NSA collects and keeps as many as it can. It has been estimated that this amounts to as much as 27 terabytes of data, an amount that, according to a May 2012 internal NSA briefing, was ‘outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store’ it. The NSA has spent the following year moving to a system with greater capacity.
The full Edward Snowden document is available here.