NSA tracking hundreds of millions of mobile phone locations worldwide

Filed Under: Featured, Mobile, Privacy

Location trackingMobile phones broadcast their location even when they're not being used to place a call or text and even when GPS is off, emitting signals sent to cell phone towers nearby from wherever we are in the world.

The US' National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting and storing those locations in a vast database that contains the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices, at the rate of nearly five billion records a day or two trillion records per year, according to newly released documents from Edward Snowden, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.

The agency is able to track the movements of individuals and to map their relationships with others, the Washington Post made clear in a video simulation that showed glowing dots traveling in close proximity.

The NSA says it's not interested in everyone's data, but the agency collects it as broadly as possible using international authority.

Specifically, the NSA is using Executive Order 12333 to cover the data collection, according to the Washington Post's Ashkan Soltani.

That order allows them to conduct any surveillance internationally as long as it's not constitutionally prohibited.

A lawyer for an intelligence agency emphasized to the newspaper that location data are obtained by methods "tuned to be looking outside the United States". In fact, he repeated that three times, the Washington Post reports.

When US cellphone data are collected, the lawyer said, the data are not covered by the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Many US persons' locations are incidentally swept up into this bulk data collection in order to find hidden links to surveillance targets, the newspaper says.

Using its location databases, the NSA applies analytic techniques to find what it calls co-travelers: unknown associates traveling with or meeting with a known target.

The Washington Post has outlined here how the sophisticated data-mining analytics, known collectively as Co-Traveler, work.

Cell phone tower. Image courtesy of ShutterstockAs a mobile phone passes between cell phone towers, its location is triangulated by the NSA. If a person travels through a city that has lots of foot traffic, potential co-travelers will appear alongside as their own mobile device broadcasts its location to towers.

Using the co-traveler analytics, the NSA can enter a suspect's name into their system and identify any other people physically located near that person or traveling with them, monitoring the global network of cell phone towers to do so.

How does one avoid being tracked by cell phone towers that track you even with GPS turned off?

Most consumers would likely imagine that turning off their handsets should prevent it from emitting or receiving a signal.

But since Snowden first began to release documents about the NSA, the possibility has arisen that the surveillance agency can trace even a phone that's powered off.

From a Washington Post story published in July:

By September 2004, a new NSA technique enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off. JSOC troops called this "The Find," and it gave them thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq, according to members of the unit.

Sochi Russia OlympicsThis possible tracking of powered-down devices could well have informed the advice handed out earlier this year in a leaflet from the US State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which warned those traveling to the Winter Olympic Games in Russia to be extremely cautious with communications.

The State Department said that business travelers should be "particularly aware that trade secrets, negotiating positions, and other sensitive information may be taken and shared with competitors, counterparts, and/or Russian regulatory and legal entities," the document advised.

The department's list of precautions for ensuring safe communications included removing batteries from phones entirely when not in use.

The state department's advice might be nothing more than precaution. Then again, the US government could know for sure that powered-down mobile devices are trackable.

Either way, those who care about their privacy and don't want to be swept up in surveillance dragnets, be it in Russia or anywhere else, should likely err on the side of caution and remove the batteries from their mobile devices whenever they don't want their movements and relationships tracked.

Image of cell phone tower courtesy of Shutterstock.

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10 Responses to NSA tracking hundreds of millions of mobile phone locations worldwide

  1. John · 134 days ago

    Better yet, take a burner phone to make phone calls, with a minimal contact list, and a burner laptop if you absolutely need one. Don't store corporate data on either. It means you can still be contacted if needed, but you're not placing any potentially sensitive data at risk.

  2. StephenC. · 132 days ago

    Wasn't this a Blackberry-related news story back in 2007? Bankers putting their batteries down on the meeting table -- to prove no DF, remote mic, recording, etc?

  3. Gavin · 131 days ago

    For Americans, this should be the most troubling line of the article:

    "When US cellphone data are collected, the lawyer said, the data are not covered by the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures."

    According to whose definition of the 4th?

    But as we all now know it's immaterial anyway. Just get GCHQ on board for any activities that are inconveniently unconstitutional.

  4. MikeP_UK · 131 days ago

    Surely if a device is switched OFF, not just in a 'standby' mode, it is not capable of sending or receiving any signals so it cannot be tracked. Not even by the phone company. If it is in its 'standby' mode, where it can receive incoming calls, then it can be tracked. The Off mode is almost like taking the battery out so it is impossible for it to send or receive calls/data/etc. That's the way they are designed to work.

    • OM · 131 days ago

      It can be tracked even if it is OFF. The only way, and the absolute only way to stop it is to take out your battery. In some phones, like the Nexus, you cant even do that!

    • Firstly let me say that there only appears to be a single source for the assertion that mobile phones that have been switched off can be tracked by the NSA. Nobody has proven it, explained it or demonstrated how it works.

      So that's our context.

      Now within that context there is a fairly active discussion on-line along the lines of "if it were true, how could it be done?".

      One of the more popular theories is that it could be done with malware, perhaps a kind of hypervisor, that makes the phone appear to be off when it isn't.

      As Lisa notes in the article it's interesting that the State Dept's own advice is to take out the battery. This doesn't mean that the NSA can monitor phones that are switched off or that if they can they're doing it with malware but it does indicate that the State Dept don't trust phones to tell you they're off as much as they trust the physical assurance of distancing the power source from its contacts.

  5. Guy · 131 days ago

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    The question that concerns me most is this: Has the NSA saved any lives, or foiled any terrorism attempts through their surveillance?

    If they have, then surely that justifies it. If they haven't, then what's their real agenda?

    My second question: As a Brit, how concerned do I have to be by NSA surveillance? I mean, how could any information they have about me conceivably affect me - so long as I am law abiding? If it can't, I'm happy with that. If it can, I'd like to know how.

    Any light that you can shed, Lisa - greatly appreciated.

  6. Dee B. · 131 days ago

    Does that mean I can call the NSA and find out where my teenage daughter is?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.