Skip to Content

Cybersecurity & Standards, Government Surveillance

NSA Tracking Location on a Massive Scale

Recently the Washington Post revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) is engaged in bulk collection of the location data of individuals’ around the world. This location-monitoring program provides the NSA with sensitive information on the private lives of Americans, as well as individuals throughout the world.

According to the report, the NSA gathers five billion records each day on individuals’ locations, with monitoring focused outside the United States. The location information is generated by operation of mobile devices, employing various methods including cell tower triangulation, GPS, and connection to Wi-Fi networks. Executive Order 12333 provides the legal authority for the location-monitoring program. The purpose of the program is to map associations among individuals seen through direct interactions and simultaneous presence at common locations, using computer analytics to map connections of “co-travelers” with common locations and movement routes.

The location-monitoring program has strong ramifications for human rights. While the Washington Post report does not reveal the total number of individuals affected, the fact that five billion records are being gathered daily demonstrates that it is immense in scale. With this magnitude of data, the NSA could be constantly tracking the location of the population of entire cities or countries, collecting intimate information about individuals who have absolutely no connection to terrorism or national security issues. The NSA can disseminate this data to foreign governments, significantly compromising the privacy of non-Americans throughout the world.

Location-data can be extremely revealing, especially when monitoring occurs ubiquitously and in bulk, as is the case with the NSA program. As we have discussed previously, cell phones are powerful tracking devices because they generally travel with the user wherever he or she goes. Using these devices to track location is akin to having a government operative or a drone following a person 24/7 – even in and out of private residences.

Location data collected over time can reveal intimate details of a person’s private life. It can show the person’s associates, health status and medical activities, political activities and religious beliefs, and give clues about one’s romantic relationships. It could reveal whether a person went to a psychiatrist, a medical clinic, or an AIDS treatment center. It potentially records whether an employee snuck away to a motel with a co-worker, or spent an hour consulting with a union organizer or criminal defense lawyer.

Although surveillance is focused outside the United States, the NSA’s location-monitoring program can significantly impact Americans. According to a government intelligence lawyer, collection is “tuned to be looking outside the United States,” raising the prospect that some domestic location data is being swept up through the program. Further, dragnet collection of international location data leaves Americans vulnerable whenever they leave the country for reasons such as a vacation, business trip, or study abroad program. According to the Washington Post report, the location of millions of Americans could be collected.

There is no known restriction on the NSA’s ability to retain this data or deliberately search for the location-information of Americans it has obtained. Thus while it does not intentionally collect Americans’ location data, the NSA can nonetheless gather location data of persons abroad in a broad and indiscriminate manner, and then search it for the location of particular Americans abroad.

The NSA has been misleading about its location monitoring programs. During a September 26 hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, NSA Director Keith Alexander adamantly denied that government was collection location data in bulk. This statement was not a falsehood only because it contained the caveat that NSA did not monitor location data pursuant to the PATRIOT Act – the NSA is engaged in the exact type of activity that was being discussed, but using a different legal authority. This use of technicalities and linguistic tricks by the government to distort public perception of surveillance activities has become all-too-familiar tactic, with deceptive statements brought to light again and again. These types of misleading claims do not benefit the Intelligence Community; it must be more straightforward if it wishes to regain credibility in the ongoing debate over government surveillance.