How Americans Were Deceived About Cell-Phone Location Data

Remember when multiple Obama Administration figures said the NSA doesn't collect it? That wasn't true.

Shortly after the earliest articles sourced to Edward Snowden appeared, Americans newly aware of the cell phones in their pockets started wondering: Would the NSA ever collect the location data that all of us generate? The possibility proved worrisome to the public and privacy experts alike. A surveillance state that routinely tracked our movement would feel dystopian and enable abuse, as various TV, web, and print commentators noted.

Even Congress seemed to be concerned. A letter signed by 26 senators declared that NSA bulk collection of phone records has a significant impact on privacy.* "This is particularly true if these records are collected in a manner that includes cell phone locational data, effectively turning Americans' cell phones into tracking devices," it stated. "Has the NSA collected or made plans to collect Americans’ cell-site location data in bulk?"

Now we know that the answer is yes. 

"The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world," the Washington Post reported on December 4, noting "a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices." Many Americans are affected by the tactic (emphasis added throughout):

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 the 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 are often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.

A subsequent Post article notes that the NSA is also "using commercially gathered information to help it locate mobile devices around the world, the documents show," explaining, "many smartphone apps running on iPhones and Android devices, and the Apple and Google operating systems themselves, track the location of each device, often without a clear warning to the phone's owner." Back in October, we also found out that the NSA had "once tested whether it could track Americans' cell phone locations," and that in doing so, the secretive agency even acquired some "samples" of location data, which it may still have. 

Put simply, everyone who feared that the NSA collects location data on Americans was correct. But they didn't learn that back when they expressed those fears. 

Quite the contrary. On multiple occasions, Obama Administration officials spoke about the collection of cell-phone location data in ways that were often technically accurate but wildly deceptive. In so doing, they succeeded in confusing the surveillance debate and creating the inaccurate impression that location data wasn't being collected.

This is a review of their deceptions. 

Fooling the Wall Street Journal

One of the earliest successes at leading the public astray came in a June 16, 2013, Wall Street Journal article:

The National Security Agency sweeps up data on millions of cellphones and Internet communications under secret court orders. But as it mounts a rigorous defense of its surveillance, the agency has disclosed new details that portray its efforts as tightly controlled and limited in scope, while successful in thwarting potential plots. On Sunday, officials said that though the NSA is authorized to collect "geolocational" information that can pinpoint the location of callers, it chooses not to. A secret court order that was made public earlier this month directed Verizon Communications Inc. to turn over to the NSA "comprehensive communications routing information." Under this authority, NSA would have the ability to collect data on locations of calls placed or received, a U.S. official said Sunday.

Other major phone companies including AT&T and Sprint also operate under similar orders, former officials say.

As part of this program, however, the NSA chooses not to collect such data as the nearest cellphone tower used to place or receive a mobile call, U.S. officials said. In a statement released this weekend, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the NSA program doesn't collect "any cell phone locational information." Such information has been found to be of value to criminal investigators, who can use it to link suspects with crime scenes. However, the U.S. official said the data doesn't provide sufficient intelligence value to justify the resources that would be required to use it.

The U.S. officials were sufficiently misleading with their statements that the WSJ reporters led their readers astray in the lede, where they neglected to include the seemingly unimportant but actually crucial caveat, "as part of this program." That caveat made what their sources told them technically accurate. The NSA apparently wasn't collecting location data as part of its Section 215 bulk-metadata-collection program (the one revealed in that initial Glenn Greenwald story about the NSA getting phone records on all Verizon customers)—it was collecting location data under different programs that had yet to be revealed.

Had the reporters known the truth, they may not have contextualized the story with language about an NSA surveillance effort that is "tightly controlled or limited in scope," and they certainly wouldn't have included the highly misleading line from the official who implied that location data wasn't collected because the resources required didn't justify it. When he said that, massive resources were being expended to collect location data!

Misleading Americans on Capitol Hill

On June 18, General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, spoke publicly about the Snowden revelations for the first time. He complained that the debate about NSA surveillance was being fueled "by incomplete and inaccurate information, with little context provided on the purpose of these programs, their value to our national security and that of our allies, and the protections that are in place," implying that he would provide a much needed corrective. Addressing the purpose of his testimony before Congress that day, he said that "we will provide additional detail and context on these two programs to help inform that debate," and soon gave the floor to Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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