NSA Admits It Tracks Americans Via Cell Phones
The general counsel of the National Security Agency testified to a Senate hearing yesterday that he believes the agency has the authority to track Americans via cell phones.
“There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist,” said Matthew Olsen the current nominee to head up the National Counterterrorism Center.
Olsen made the comments to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) repeatedly asked if the government has the authority to “use cell site data to track the location of Americans inside the country.”
Olsen added that the reason his answer was not definitive was that “it is a very complicated question”, assuring the committee that the NSA would provide more information in a future memo.
Sen. Wyden recently wrote (full letter below) to the Director of National Intelligence demanding to know whether the CIA and the NSA “have the authority to collect the geolocation information of American citizens for intelligence purposes.”
“If yes, please explain the specific statutory basis for this authority,” the letter, co signed by Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.) states.
The Senators also requested information on how many Americans have been monitored under authority granted by 2008 legislation amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “Have any apparently law-abiding Americans had their communications collected by the government?” the letter asks.
Two months ago Wyden expressed concern that the law relating to surveillance is unclear. “The law is being secretly interpreted by the executive branch” Wyden noted.
Along with Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), Wyden has introduced a joint bill that would force any government agency to secure a search warrant and show probable cause before tracking the location of any American.
The issue of cell phone tracking blew up earlier this year when it was revealed that computer researchers discovered a hidden file that allows Apple to track the location of iPhone and iPad users. Google’s collection of location from cellphones has also been open to question.
As we have previously highlighted, however, since October 2001, the FCC has mandated that all wireless carriers track the location of their users down to within 50 feet.
Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC mandated that by October 1, 2001 a quarter of all new cellphones be equipped with GPS functionality that would allow authorities to track the location of users. By the end of 2002, this became a mandatory requirement of allnew cellphones.
As Geek.com reported back in October 2001, “Because cellphone calls to 911 (estimated at around 140,000 per year) do not give the 911 operator location information, the FCC mandated that wireless companies “be able to locate 67 percent of callers to 911 within 50 meters that elect the handset solution while those using network technology must be able to locate the caller within 100 meters.” Wireless companies must also have one-quarter of the new cellphones they offer equipped to provide that location information by the end of the year, and all new cellphones so equipped by the end of next year.”
As a PC World article written in August 2001, two months before the first phase of the new FCC rules were enacted, asked, “The FCC requires cell phone companies to track you, in order to find you when you call 911–but what about your privacy?”
“Cell phone tracking was propelled by the Federal Communications Commission, which adopted enhanced 911 rules to cover wireless services. For E911′s first phase, cellular carriers must be able to pinpoint, to the nearest cell tower, the location of someone calling 911. For Phase II, carriers must be able to pinpoint a 911 caller’s location to within 50 to 300 meters,” states the article.
Your cellphone has been tracking you in real time for the lion’s share of the last decade, so why has it taken the media nearly 10 years to notice? Because in 2001, when such measures could have been made illegal, there was no iPhone, there was no app store, and the smart phones being used were extremely crude compared to today’s models, which are no less than mini-laptops.