The Next NSA Fight: Using Phone Data To Track Every American's Location

Owen Poindexter
The current fight over the NSA spying on our electronic communications is still raging, but the next one, over location data, has already begun.

nsa, national security administration, spying, obama
The NSA can track your location by your phone, and it's only a matter of time before it does. Photo: Harland Quarrington/MOD

The next big privacy fight will go into previously uncharted territory: the National Security Administration (NSA) tracking everyone’s location via their phones. It turns out the NSA has already been testing the waters. From the New York Times (emphasis added):

“The National Security Agency conducted a secret pilot project in 2010 and 2011 to test the collection of bulk data about the location of Americans’ cellphones, but the agency never moved ahead with such a program, according to intelligence officials….

“Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who receives classified briefings as a member of the Intelligence Committee and who has raised concerns about cellphone location tracking, said in a statement that there was more to know about the matter than the government had now declassified.

‘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,’ Mr. Wyden said."

So, the NSA is taking data from your cell phone, but they aren’t really doing anything with it…unless they are. Sound familiar?

The NSA isn’t involved in some giant mastermind plot that involves knowing the precise location of every American, they want cell phone location data for the same reason they want email and phone conversations: it’s there, and it might be useful, especially in the aggregate. If your job is to try to find terrorists before they commit violent acts, it’s obvious how location data would be useful.

The problem, of course, is that this forces us to trust the NSA to not do anything capricious or malicious with this data. This is from the government who raided homes of suspected communists not so long ago, who sent moles into peace groups under George W. Bush, and to this day kills hundreds of people with drone strikes and continues a disastrous and wasteful War on Drugs. The point is not specifically tied to any of those examples so much as a statement that the U.S. government has not earned our trust on spying and national security.

The U.S. government has two constraints when it comes to spying: what is possible and what can it get away with. Cell phone tracking data is available, it's just a matter of processing it, and getting away with collecting it.

The current fight over the NSA spying on our electronic communications is still raging, but the next one, over location data, has already begun.

Read More: Stop Watching Us: Video Of Protestors Marching In Washington Against NSA Spying