WASHINGTON – The National Security Agency collected samples of records showing where Americans were when they made mobile phone calls in 2010 and 2011 to test how it could obtain and process the data in bulk, but decided not to move forward with the plan, intelligence officials disclosed Wednesday.
The admission by NSA chief Keith Alexander to a Senate committee solved part of a mystery about the digital spying agency’s involvement with data that could reveal the day-to-day movements of – and deeply personal information about – every cellphone user.
Spurred by leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA has admitted it collects in bulk the “to and from” calling records of Americans, but has denied collecting the location information that attaches to each mobile phone call. It is now clear the agency considered doing that.
The test-run data were “never available for intelligence analysis purposes,” Alexander said, and in June, the NSA promised to notify Congress before any further location data were collected.
“I would just say that this may be something that is a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now,” Alexander said. The FBI can get location data on suspects through court-approved, case-specific warrants, he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who receives classified briefings as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had been pressing the NSA to acknowledge its flirtation with bulk collection of U.S. location data. He said in a statement there was more to the story, but did not elaborate.
“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,” Wyden said.
In the U.S., mobile phone location information is commonly used in criminal investigations and civil lawsuits after being obtained through search warrants or other legal demands. It is also sold in bulk – with no user names attached – by mobile phone companies to other companies that mine the data for marketing purposes.
Privacy activists fear that bulk collection of the data could subject people to invasion of privacy by disclosing political gatherings, illicit affairs, trips to therapists and other personal information.
The NSA already vacuums up as much mobile phone location data on foreign targets outside the U.S. as it can get, former officials said.
The news of the NSA’s location data test emerged at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on agency surveillance.