A new report in The Washington Post suggests that the National Security Agency (NSA) tracks roughly 5 billion mobile phones every day, a number that will do nothing to quiet the current fervor over the intelligence agency’s information-gathering practices.
The Post drew a portion of its information from top-secret documents provided by Edward Snowden, a government whistleblower who once worked as a contractor for the NSA. It also interviewed U.S. intelligence officials, including an anonymous one who spoke with the permission of the NSA.
The NSA dumps those billions of phone records into a huge database, which data scientists and others can mine for a better understanding of targeted individuals’ relationships. Those analytics tools, known as CO-TRAVELER, can help the NSA find “unknown associates of known intelligence targets,” according to the Post report.
NSA officials told the Post they had no way of knowing how many Americans might have found their data swept up in that massive collection process. While the NSA’s charter explicitly forbids it from spying within the United States, privacy advocates and some lawmakers have complained strenuously over the past several months that the agency’s data fishnets sweep up far too much information on ordinary Americans; for its part, the NSA argues that it goes out of its way to obey all applicable rules and regulations.
While documents obtained from Edward Snowden have revealed quite a bit about the NSA’s top-secret programs, the phone-tracking effort detailed in this latest report is possibly the largest one brought to light so far. If the NSA is truly capable of tracking billions of phones and knitting that data into patterns, it suggests even the most stringent privacy and security measures are all but useless—even the use of “burner” phones would raise a flag within the agency’s systems. The NSA has 10 “sigads” (which the Post defines as signals intelligence activity designators) pulling down information from around the world, which makes its reach quite extensive.
NSA revelations have come at a fairly rapid clip over the past few months. In late November, for example, Dutch news Website NRC released a report (also based on Snowden documents) suggesting that the NSA had installed malware on tens of thousands of computers worldwide via its Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) efforts, giving it a significant reach into the global telecommunications network underlying the Web. Given the trove of documents that Snowden supposedly downloaded, and his willingness to hand them over to the world’s media, it’s all but certain that more reveals are in the works.
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