Hoo boy. One for the “we kinda knew they were doing this, but talk about it being worse than anyone suspected.”
Long story short — the NSA knows where every cell phone in the world is at all times. More or less. Enough on the “more” side that you should assume this to be the case.
This data exists primarily to look backwards in time, and see who you’ve talked with or met with in the event you ever fall under suspicion.
They even have quite sophisticated tools to identify when someone switches from one “burner” to another. These tools don’t just look at momentary location, but overlay movements on transportation maps to figure out where two cell phones might have intersected.
In one case, this database has even been used for countersurveillance — looking at a path an intelligence operative walked abroad, and seeing if any cell phones had followed him or her.
Ukraine: Looks like things are moving in the protesters’ direction. But then again the government there has been friendly to this direction for a while — the Orange Revolution had active support from certain parts of Ukranian domestic intelligence, for example. Democracy in action? http://en.for-ua.com/news/2013/12/05/154836.html
“The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, according to top-secret documents and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials, enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.
The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices, according to the officials and the documents, which were provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. New projects created to analyze that data have provided the intelligence community with what amounts to a mass surveillance tool.[…]
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.
In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them. […]
The NSA has no reason to suspect that the movements of the overwhelming majority of cellphone users would be relevant to national security. Rather, it collects locations in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools — known collectively as CO-TRAVELER — allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect. […]
“Many shared databases, such as those used for roaming, are available in their complete form to any carrier who requires access to any part of it,” said Matt Blaze, an associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. “This ‘flat’ trust model means that a surprisingly large number of entities have access to data about customers that they never actually do business with, and an intelligence agency — hostile or friendly — can get ‘one-stop shopping’ to an expansive range of subscriber data just by compromising a few carriers.”
Some documents in the Snowden archive suggest that acquisition of U.S. location data is routine enough to be cited as an example in training materials. In an October 2012 white paper on analytic techniques, for example, the NSA’s counterterrorism analysis unit describes the challenges of tracking customers who use two different mobile networks, saying it would be hard to correlate a user on the T-Mobile network with one on Verizon. […]
The NSA’s capabilities to track location are staggering, based on the Snowden documents, and indicate that the agency is able to render most efforts at communications security effectively futile.
Like encryption and anonymity tools online, which are used by dissidents, journalists and terrorists alike, security-minded behavior — using disposable cellphones and switching them on only long enough to make brief calls — marks a user for special scrutiny. CO-TRAVELER takes note, for example, when a new telephone connects to a cell tower soon after another nearby device is used for the last time.
Side-by-side security efforts — when nearby devices power off and on together over time — “assist in determining whether co-travelers are associated . . . through behaviorally relevant relationships,” according to the 24-page white paper, which was developed by the NSA in partnership with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Australian Signals Directorate and private contractors.[…]
A central feature of each of these tools is that they do not rely on knowing a particular target in advance, or even suspecting one. They operate on the full universe of data in the NSA’s FASCIA repository, which stores trillions of metadata records, of which a large but unknown fraction include locations.
The most basic analytic tools map the date, time, and location of cellphones to look for patterns or significant moments of overlap. Other tools compute speed and trajectory for large numbers of mobile devices, overlaying the electronic data on transportation maps to compute the likely travel time and determine which devices might have intersected.
To solve the problem of undetectable surveillance against CIA officers stationed overseas, one contractor designed an analytic model that would carefully record the case officer’s path and look for other mobile devices in steady proximity. “