The National Security Agency doesn't seem to be sure if they have the authority to track Americans using cell phone location data, but they may be doing it anyways. At a confirmation hearing for the NSA's chief counsel Matthew Olson, who's been tapped to head the National Counterterrorism Center, Senator Ron Wyden wanted to whether the intelligence community “use[s] cell site data to track the location of Americans inside the country.” He asked Olson about phone tracking several times before he got an answer. And even then it wasn't entirely clear what the NSA is doing.
"There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist," said Olson. "It is a very complicated question."
Olson promised a follow up, and Wednesday afternoon, the Director of National Intelligence delivered. However, the letter just said that Wyden's question is "difficult to answer," confirming that "the government has some authority to collect cell phone mobility data under appropriate circumstances."
The fact that the heads of American intelligence agencies couldn't manage more than an "it's complicated" answer to Wyden's questions has frustrated some bloggers. "The committee was promised a memo explaining those 'circumstances' by September," wrote Julian Sanchez at the Cato Institute. "That means that just about ten years after Congress approved the Patriot Act, a handful of legislators may get the privilege of learning what it does. Ah, democracy."