NSA collects 5 billion cell location records a day, Snowden leaks say

New leaks showing the scale of the U.S. government's cell location tracking efforts include how the NSA can track an individual's movements.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: Washington Post

The U.S. National Security Agency is gathering close to 5 billion records a day on cellular devices around the world, allowing the agency to track individual's movements.

New documents leaked by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden lift the veil on the U.S.' location tracking for the first time.

First reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday, the records flow into a vast database that can store the location of "at least hundreds of millions of devices," according to the documents. 

While the secret intelligence agency does not intend to target Americans' location by default, the Post reports that a substantial amount of domestic data is "incidentally" recorded. This, according to other documents, stems from a legal term that describes in possible and foreseeable, but not deliberate data collection. Such data is also collected on tens of millions Americans who travel abroad with their devices each year.

The data is then processed by a secret program, dubbed CO-TRAVELER, is a powerful analytics tool that allows the net of suspects to be widened by connecting known targets with new unknown associates. The program tracks hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including the hospitals they visit and the location of business meetings, the Post reports.

Exactly how this occurs on a technical level is relatively unknown. Ten major signals intelligence "designators" around the world allow the mass data collection. In one example, previously outed program STORMBREW relies on two unnamed corporate partners, dubbed ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT, which house the NSA's interception equipment.  

STORMBREW collects data from 27 telephone links that includes tower identifiers, which can be used to trace and triangulate where a cell device, such as a cellphone, smartphone, or tablet, is located on a map.

The NSA is understood to keep about 1 percent of the records — some 27 terabytes, according to the documents — but it's enough for other internal NSA reports to concern the agency with its inability to "ingest, process and store" data.

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