Washington Post: 5 billion cellphone location records collected daily by the NSA

by: Chris SmithDecember 4, 2013

NSA Building

In addition to monitoring various types of digital communication, the National Security Agency (NSA) is also collecting large amounts of data on cellphone location.

Based on information received from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Washington Post reveals that the agency collects as many as 5 billion cellphone location records each day, as it tries to identify certain mobile behavior patterns that would match individuals with malicious intentions, as well as to single out relationships between targets and collaborators.

But the NSA isn’t targeting specific individuals in this broad data mining operation, as it simply collects all available location data from many mobile operators around the world in order to analyze it and look for strange behavior. While spying on location data as collected by carriers around the world, the NSA also “incidentally” collects data on American citizens that travel to other countries and who should be protected by the Fourth Amendment. However, from what NSA officials and lawyers were able to tell the publication, the data collection on American citizens isn’t intentional, only a collateral effect of the large net it has cast on location tracking.

Because every mobile device has to connect to a carrier tower at all times in order to allow the user to make calls, send messages and browse the web (in case of smartphones), this means that virtually any mobile device that has a cellular component is being spied upon. By collecting all this data – which may top 27 terabytes, or “more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’s print collection” – the NSA can find relevant targets, retrace their steps and monitor potential suspect relationship with other potential targets that they frequently encounter.

NSA Crest

While managing such an amount of data isn’t an easy task, the agency is able to look for relevant information. The NSA uses complex analytics tools to monitor targets, to determine their likely travel time and possible intersections:

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.

It’s unclear whether mobile operators are aware of this issue that affects the privacy of millions of mobile device owners – “the NSA’s database includes information about the location of at least hundreds of millions of devices” – but it looks like the NSA isn’t having too much trouble getting its data. According to one official, the NSA is getting its location data from around the world, “by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally.”

While communication methods between mobile devices on a network can be protected through encryption against the NSA’s snooping, location data isn’t exactly something that can be as easily protected. One way of disappearing from the net is to avoid using mobile devices altogether, and only use them whenever necessary. But then, that kind of behavior – turning on and off a device at certain intervals, or switching between disposable cellphones – would only trigger the NSA’s curiosity as to why the user is acting in such a manner. Because usually, unsuspecting mobile users would use their mobile devices without worrying about having their location tracked at all times.

The following infographic, provided by the Washington Post, explains how the entire location data mining process takes place, and how the agency follows potential targets and their potential relationships with others:

NSA Location Tracking Co-Traveler

How the NSA tracks the location of mobile devices and monitors suspect behavior | Image credit: Washington Post

  • NeedName

    power corrupts. . . and the US has had a lot of power for some time now, and we see the effects.

    • Santa: Be good kids, I know who’s naughty and nice.
      Kids: Wait are you spying on my phone? Santa, do you work for NSA??!!
      Santa: …

  • Melad360

    screw the nsa

  • Balraj

    Not just to use to find bad people but also to find people whom they hate !!
    I think every country does that…

    • APai

      also could be a convenient tool to track your opposition party. it all starts off with the most noblest goals – terrorists/ paedophiles then they expand it to all kinds of sundry crimes, before we know, we’d have lost any hope of freedom. look at TSA – NSA both born after 9/11.

      • Balraj

        At last we agree on something :-P :-P

        • APai


  • Justin

    All your data are belong to the NSA…

  • dodz

    I dont even care if they have my data, im not uploading or discussing my personal information on technology anyways, i prefer to use the old fashioned “physically talk to someone when it is important” method anyway.

  • Anon9876

    Not trying to sound ignorant, but.. is this really that big a deal? I mean, does anyone really stand to lose anything? Do ppl think they’re worth that much?

    • APai

      classic snooping was done based on actual reports, and probably extended a bit beyond. they went after real threasts and did not waste time snooping beyond a certain anti social/ anti state boundary. this is altogether a different case. the whole security apparatus maybe thrown off gear if someone overtook the nsa and hijacked the entire situation. too much dirt on everyone, too much info about everyone.

      basically, nsa has gone rogue

    • Balraj

      Let’s say nsa wants a job to get done by someone..that person refuses, they spy on his calls etc then find a weakness ?
      Then ? It’s all about inner politics
      It might not seem wrong, if your common man but what if your someone important :/

      • NeedName

        There’s a lot of evidence that certain organizations have been finding “dirt” or even creating “dirt” on members of congress, and/or those running for congress, so that they can “blackmail” them to do what they want. . . and this has been going on for at least a few decades.

  • Christian Harris

    I put mine on Airplane most of the time to conserve the battery. I only turn it on at school and while I’m riding the bus. I use the WiFi at home and wherever I go. But then again I’m on a limited plan…

    • mumusen

      They are watching you.. They are coming for you………….

      • Christian Harris

        Why? I don’t do anything illegal. Although it did take a lot of time to convince my mother to get my a smartphone because she is really paranoid about this type of stuff.

        • Raaj

          It doesn’t matter whether you did or didn’t do. Since any self respecting human won’t go throw TBs of garbage to find anything “meaningful”, it is the Supercomputers with their “advanced brains” that do this job. And once they see a crazy pattern in your usage, without looking at your scenario, it will trigger a red flag and some black suit is gonna come knocking your door!
          :-P lol

          • Christian Harris

            The only thing that bothers me is the fact that they can detain me for the rest of my life for committing a crime without any proof.

          • Raaj

            Yes it is BS and the heights they go to in the name of “national security” is plain ridiculous!

          • mumusen

            Truly said. Just wait and @disqus_ayzPO5RLvW:disqus. They, ARE, coming, for, YOU!

  • APai

    nsa the menace

  • atish

    cell phone location tracking is just one of the few work it does… it reads sms phone calls in order to identify malicious persons … yes they are treating people like a computer virus …. :(

  • Hugo Oskarsson

    For gods sake the US has to stop treating humanity like shit just to stop a few people from commiting crimes!!

  • Roberto Tomás

    wow 5 billion per day means .. for example 50 million people at every 15 minutes all 24 hours per day. It’s kinda too much… I mean, maybe not but I feel like I aught to be notified if they are keeping that kind of tabs on me.