The US National Security Agency (NSA) is tracking the location of mobile phones globally in a project that creates nearly 5 billion records every day.
The agency’s vast database covers “at least hundreds of millions of devices” reports The Washington Post, allowing the authorities to “find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them.”
The NSA says it collects the data “incidentally” – a legal term that refers to a “foreseeable but not deliberate result” – but the agency’s activities have been decried by privacy groups.
“It is staggering that a location-tracking program on this scale could be implemented without any public debate,” said the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement.
“The dragnet surveillance of hundreds of millions of cell phones flouts our international obligation to respect the privacy of foreigners and Americans alike.”
These latest revelations have surfaced just as Microsoft has announced that it will introduce more encryption measures whilst branding goverment snooping as an "advanced persistent threat" comparable to malware and cyber attacks.
The data used by the NSA is only “a tiny fraction of 1 per cent” of what is collected, with the agency relying on a powerful analytical program called Co-Traveler to discover previously unknown associates of intelligence targets.
The inability to know in advance which mobile signals will be relevant means that a vast amount of data must be retained, with the NSA lamenting in a 2012 internal briefing that the volume of information is “outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store [it]”.
It was also revealed that the NSA relies on cooperation from anonymous corporate partners, with two entities codenamed ‘Artifice’ and ‘Wolfpoint’ used to collect the data. Internal inventories from the agency notes that these companies administer the necessary hardware whilst the “NSA asks nicely for tasking/updates”.
These new reports comes from documents provided by former NSA-contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, with the Post suggesting that compared to previous revelations this project is “unsurpassed” in “scale, scope and potential impact on privacy”.
The tracking of mobile phones via the signals they exchange with nearby network towers is worrying news for any security-minded individuals, be they dissidents, journalists or terrorists.
The very protocols that these individuals may employ to hide their presence from authorities - such as switching their mobiles on only to make calls - instantly marks them out to the NSA as a subject of interest.