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NSA tracking mobile phones

December 5, 2013

The US National Security Agency collects nearly 5 billion records each day on mobile phone locations around the world, including those of Americans, the Washington Post has reported, citing documents from Edward Snowden.

NSA HQ in Ft Meade, MD
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The records are added to a gigantic database that shows the location of "at least hundreds of millions of cell phones" worldwide, the newspaper reported on Wednesday. The information effectively allows the NSA to track the movements of almost any mobile phone in the world, as well as map the relationships of the mobile phone user.

According to the report, Americans' locations are not targeted intentionally but can be picked up "incidentally" as part of the collections process. The data is collected by tapping into cables that link the worldwide mobile network, said the Post. The report was based on documents leaked by former intelligence contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, as well as interviews with intelligence officials.

The NSA uses a powerful computer program called CO-TRAVELER to process the data on billions of people and build patterns based on where their phones go. Intelligence officials told the newspaper that the programs are legal and are designed to only target foreign militants or other "targets" that are deemed a threat to the US.

The information is collected with the help of two unnamed corporations, according to the Post. The amount of data collected is "outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store" data, according to an internal NSA briefing from May 2012 cited by the Post.

"The NSA's capabilities to track location are staggering, based on the Snowden documents, and indicate that the agency is able to render most efforts at communications security effectively futile," said the newspaper's article, which was written by Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani.

Reports citing the Snowden documents on Washington's far-reaching spy programs were first published in June. They have sparked a worldwide debate over US espionage and surveillance activities. Snowden, who faces espionage charges if he returns to the US, has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.

dr/av (AFP, Reuters, AP)