Everyone who carries a cellphone generates a trail of electronic breadcrumbs that records everywhere they go. Those breadcrumbs reveal a wealth of information about who we are, where we live, who our friends are and much more. And as we reported last week, the National Security Agency is collecting location information in bulk — 5 billion records per day worldwide — and using sophisticated algorithms to assist with U.S. intelligence-gathering operations.
How do they do it? And what can they learn from location data? The latest documents show the extent of the location-tracking program we first reported last week. Read on to learn more about what the documents show.
What’s the big deal? Information about where people go and when seems pretty innocuous.
The NSA doesn’t just have the technical capabilities to collect location-based data in bulk. A 24-page NSA white paper shows that the agency has a powerful suite of algorithms, or data sorting tools, that allow it to learn a great deal about how people live their lives.
Those tools allow the agency to perform analytics on a global scale, examining data collected about potentially everyone’s movements in order to flag new surveillance targets.
For example, one NSA program, code-named Fast Follower, was developed to allow the NSA to identify who might have been assigned to tail American case officers at stations overseas. By correlating an officer’s cellphone signals to those of foreign nationals in the same city, the NSA is able to figure out whether anyone is moving in tandem with the U.S. officer.
Mobile devices reveal their locations in multiple ways.
When mobile devices are turned on and begin searching for cellular signals, they reveal their locations to any radio receivers nearby. As cellphones connect to cellular networks, they immediately register their locations to one or more databases maintained by telephone providers and clearing houses in order to allow calls to be made and received. These databases are known as Home Location Registers and Visitor Location Registers.
Registration messages often include a device’s ‘coarse’ location, at the level of a city or country, or a ‘finer’ position based on distance from a cellular tower (based on their VLRs). Most mobile operators also track phones precisely by triangulating their distance from multiple towers, for example to provide location-based emergency services
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