NSA Finally Admits to Tracking Americans' Cellphones in "Pilot" Project

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 2 2013 4:47 PM

NSA Finally Admits to Tracking Americans' Cellphones in "Pilot" Project

90802658
A man and a woman walk past each other while speaking on their mobile phones in Washington.

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The National Security Agency has finally admitted that it recently operated a surveillance program that involved collecting Americans’ cellphone location data. But the NSA continues to conceal the full facts, according to a senator privy to classified information about the agency’s activities.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander acknowledged for the first time that between 2010 and 2011, the spy agency collected location data on Americans as part of a secret pilot project. Alexander’s admission came after the New York Times reported Wednesday that the trial program had apparently “received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format.”

Advertisement

According to the Times, the NSA says that it does not currently collect location information under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the law that underpins the NSA’s mass phone records database. However, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., claims that the NSA is being economical with the truth. Wyden, a noted NSA critic and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement released Wednesday:

After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law-abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret—even when the truth would not compromise national security.

Years before the leaks about NSA surveillance by Edward Snowden, Wyden had told Americans that they would be “stunned” to learn about how the government was secretly interpreting surveillance laws. But more recently he has continued to caution that Snowden’s disclosures are merely the tip of the iceberg, on several occasions mentioning the location tracking issue. During a July speech at the Center for American Progress, Wyden referred to the possibility of NSA cellphone location tracking several times and added that “vacuuming up” the data was a major privacy concern. “We are told this is not happening today,” Wyden said, “but intelligence officials have told the press that they currently have the legal authority to collect Americans’ location information in bulk.”

Intriguingly, Gen. Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have both issued carefully worded denials specifying that location tracking is not currently taking place under the Patriot Act. Additionally, NSA deputy director Chris Inglis stated in July that the agency does not collect location data under “this program,” in reference to the bulk phone records initiative. The question, then, is whether the spy chiefs are being deliberately precise with their language and are in fact using other programs or laws, such the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to justify the collection of location data.

A recent New York Times report based on Snowden’s revelations suggested that the NSA is mining GPS location data directly from Internet check-ins, for instance, and the agency is also said to operate a unit called Geolocation Cell that is tasked with tracking phones (even when they’re turned off). Other leaked NSA slides have separately suggested that the agency has made use of location data stored and transmitted by iPhones, with one NSA PowerPoint presentation portraying Apple customers as “zombies” whom it implied could be easily tracked. So while NSA officials may be keen to play down the agency’s location gathering efforts, this issue is far from settled. There is still a serious lack of clarity about when, how, why, and under what authority, the NSA collects location data.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.