Future Tense

NSA Finally Admits to Tracking Americans’ Cellphones in “Pilot” Project

A man and a woman walk past each other while speaking on their mobile phones in Washington.

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The National Security Agency has finally admitted that it recently operated a surveillance program that involved collecting Americans’ cellphone location data. But the NSA continues to conceal the full facts, according to a senator privy to classified information about the agency’s activities.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander acknowledged for the first time that between 2010 and 2011, the spy agency collected location data on Americans as part of a secret pilot project. Alexander’s admission came after the New York Times reported Wednesday that the trial program had apparently “received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format.”

According to the Times, the NSA says that it does not currently collect location information under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the law that underpins the NSA’s mass phone records database. However, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., claims that the NSA is being economical with the truth. Wyden, a noted NSA critic and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement released Wednesday:

After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law-abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret—even when the truth would not compromise national security.

Years before the leaks about NSA surveillance by Edward Snowden, Wyden had told Americans that they would be “stunned” to learn about how the government was secretly interpreting surveillance laws. But more recently he has continued to caution that Snowden’s disclosures are merely the tip of the iceberg, on several occasions mentioning the location tracking issue. During a July speech at the Center for American Progress, Wyden referred to the possibility of NSA cellphone location tracking several times and added that “vacuuming up” the data was a major privacy concern. “We are told this is not happening today,” Wyden said, “but intelligence officials have told the press that they currently have the legal authority to collect Americans’ location information in bulk.”

Intriguingly, Gen. Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have both issued carefully worded denials specifying that location tracking is not currently taking place under the Patriot Act. Additionally, NSA deputy director Chris Inglis stated in July that the agency does not collect location data under “this program,” in reference to the bulk phone records initiative. The question, then, is whether the spy chiefs are being deliberately precise with their language and are in fact using other programs or laws, such the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to justify the collection of location data.

A recent New York Times report based on Snowden’s revelations suggested that the NSA is mining GPS location data directly from Internet check-ins, for instance, and the agency is also said to operate a unit called Geolocation Cell that is tasked with tracking phones (even when they’re turned off). Other leaked NSA slides have separately suggested that the agency has made use of location data stored and transmitted by iPhones, with one NSA PowerPoint presentation portraying Apple customers as “zombies” whom it implied could be easily tracked. So while NSA officials may be keen to play down the agency’s location gathering efforts, this issue is far from settled. There is still a serious lack of clarity about when, how, why, and under what authority, the NSA collects location data.