NSA Used Americans' Cellphone Location Data In Tracking Trials

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Since the Snowden leaks began in early June, we've learned numerous things about the NSA and its various surveillance programs. Perhaps the most shocking of these revelations was a program called XKeyscore that allowed the NSA to track everything Americans do online. Now it's been revealed by the government that it was planning to take it a step further by tracking Americans' physical locations.

The Hill reports that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander spoke at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this morning where he revealed that the agency had been working on a trial program that would indiscriminately collect cellphone location data from Americans. The trial program ran from 2010 to 2011 and targeted an unknown number of people.

So, how is this possible? Current law makes it so that cellphone location data tracking requires a warrant with probable cause. Gen. Alexander argued that the bulk collection of cellphone location data was legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act - the same clause that allows the bulk collection of phone metadata. Just like its phone metadata collection program, the NSA would just sit on the cellphone location data it had received.

After this revelation, Gen. Alexander was quick to point out that the data was merely used to "test its systems" and was not used for intelligence analysis. He also said that the agency wouldn't start the program up again until it received permission to do so from the FISA court, and that he would notify Congress upon its revival.

What's interesting about all of this is that Gen. Alexander himself pretty much conceded that the NSA doesn't even need this capability. It already collects bulk phone metadata, including phone numbers, and can hand over that data to the FBI when it has a probable cause warrant. In short, he readily admits that the FBI can handle all domestic investigations, including those that require location tracking.

Granted, that's not likely to happen as Gen. Alexander noted that the bulk collection of cellphone location data "may be something that would be a future requirement for the country." I don't know of any event that would require the NSA to collect bulk location data, and frankly, it seems as unnecessary as the current bulk phone metadata collection program.

While Gen. Alexander says that it isn't currently collecting cellphone location data, Sen. Ron Wyden isn't so sure. His position on the Senate Intelligence Committee makes him privy to some classified information, and he says that Alexander isn't telling the whole story:

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

Unfortunately, Wyden's hands are tied as he can not reveal any of the classified information he receives as a member of the Intelligence Committee. The best he can do is continue pushing the executive branch and intelligence community to be more transparent about its surveillance programs.

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