US Spies Tracking Locations of Mobile Phones Around the World

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The US spy agency the NSA is claimed to be tracking the location of thousands of mobile phones around the world on a daily basis.

Citing documents provided by the whistleblower, Edward Snowden and its own interviews, the Washington Post reported that the NSA pulls in nearly 5 billion data points per day indicating the locations of target phones.

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."

The phones are not specifically targeted, as that would need the cooperation of every mobile network in the world, but their locations are inferred by sweeping up vast amounts of data about all users of mobile networks and using computers to filter out the noise.

For example, if they log every phone in a specific base station, then the target moves into a neighbouring base station, where again they have every phone user known -- then where phone ids overlap, there is a presumption that the phone users may be travelling together. Do that long enough, and if two of three phones keep popping up together in the same cell, then the chances they are travelling together rises.

The rest of the data about unassociated phones is allegedly then dumped as unnecessary.

American Civil Liberties Union responded though saying that "It is staggering that a location-tracking program on this scale could be implemented without any public debate, particularly given the substantial number of Americans having their movements recorded by the government. The paths that we travel every day can reveal an extraordinary amount about our political, professional, and intimate relationships. The dragnet surveillance of hundreds of millions of cell phones flouts our international obligation to respect the privacy of foreigners and Americans alike."

Although the NSA argues that its actions are legal, under US law, they do still require the spies to be tapping into phone networks databases and extracting fairly substantial amounts of data, which is likely to be illegal in those countries.

On the web: Washington Post

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