NSA is tracking mobile phone location on so many people it can’t handle the data storage

Mike Masnick writes: We all know that Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been hinting strongly about the NSA tracking people’s location via mobile phone location data. Since the Snowden documents started getting reported on, Wyden especially had ramped up his hints that mobile phone location data still undisclosed would be the real shocker. Back in October, it was revealed that the NSA had done a “pilot program” in the US to track people’s locations via their mobile phones, but stopped the program and never used the data. In response to that, Senator Wyden hinted that there was much more to come:

“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,” Mr. Wyden said.

It would appear that “the real story secret” has started to come out via some new Snowden documents reported on in the Washington Post by Bart Gellman and Ashkan Soltani. Basically, while the NSA may not be spying on the location of Americans in the US via their mobile phones, they appear to be collecting location data of pretty much anyone all over the rest of the world to the tune of 5 billion records a day — so much info that the NSA was having trouble storing it all (now you know what some of the Bluffdale datacenter in Utah is for).

The NSA cannot know in advance which tiny fraction of 1 percent of the records it may need, so it collects and keeps as many as it can — 27 terabytes, by one account, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’s print collection.

The location programs have brought in such volumes of information, according to a May 2012 internal NSA briefing, that they are “outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store” data. In the ensuing year and a half, the NSA has been transitioning to a processing system that provided it with greater capacity.

The NSA defends the program by saying that it uses the location data to find “unknown associates of known intelligence targets.” Basically, it’s tracking where everyone goes, just in case people end up spending time with people the NSA deems as being terrorists. However, that also means that the NSA has an astounding amount of really personal data on where pretty much everyone goes outside of the US, including who they meet with. The ability to abuse that data should be rather obvious. From that data, you can not only determine private business meetings, but you can figure out what doctors people go to, if they’re cheating on their spouse, etc. And, given last week’s revelations that the NSA has no qualms (at all) about using data on non-terrorists to embarrass them for the sake of embarrassing them, it’s not difficult to see how the NSA might do the same over information gleaned from this vast trough of location information. [Continue reading…]

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