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.