The National Security Agency reportedly has the power to map your movements, determine your "co-travelers" and guess about in-person contacts you're making using intercepted cellphone location records.
That's possible because the NSA collects approximately 5 billion location data points every day from cables that connect cellphone networks, The Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden and confirmation from NSA employees.
"We will not comment on the piece," NSA spokeswoman Vanee' Vines said Thursday when asked about the Post article.
The Post, however, says it was given access to several government intelligence employees who spoke anonymously with official permission. They described the program as exclusively targeting foreigners and said it was entirely legal.
Cellphone location data can be loaded into a powerful NSA bundle of tools known as "CO-TRAVELER" that unmasks the location of cellphone users intelligence targets may be traveling with or meeting.
A senior NSA collection manager confirmed to the Post that the NSA takes this information from cables that also connect U.S. cellphones, but Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said there is no mass targeting of people within the U.S.
"[T]here is no element of the intelligence community that under any authority is intentionally collecting bulk cellphone location information about cellphones in the United States," Litt told the Post.
An unnamed intelligence lawyer told the Post data-collection is "tuned to be looking outside the United States." An unnamed intelligence official said it would be "awkward for us to try to provide any specific numbers" about the volume of location data collected and an unnamed NSA spokeswoman told the Post the agency has no way to calculate that figure.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing to stop the bulk collection of phone records, quickly denounced the latest surveillance revelation.
"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," said ACLU attorney Catherine Crump in a released statement. "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 cellphones flouts our international obligation to respect the privacy of foreigners and Americans alike."
According to the Post, which cites top-secret briefing slides provided by Snowden, at least two companies – code named ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT – administer interception equipment for cellphone location data provided to the NSA.
Whistle-blowers from at least two U.S. companies went public years ago with allegations that the government installed intercept equipment on-site at telecommunications company facilities. In 2008, during a congressional debate about granting companies immunity for helping with government surveillance, Verizon Wireless computer security contractor Babak Pasdar alleged a secret circuit provided the government compete access to all mobile phone communications processed by the company. In 2006 former AT&T communications technician Mark Klein told Wired magazine a secret room at a company switching center in San Francisco housed machinery that forwarded information to the NSA. He snapped a photo of the room.
The classified surveillance programs disclosed by Snowden are overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a panel that secretly supervises American intelligence programs. Two U.S. District Court judges are currently considering whether they have the authority to hear constitutional challenges to FISC decisions.