The National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md.
The National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. Charles Dharapak/AP
There's a new report Wednesday on the scale of surveillance by the National Security Agency: The Washington Post reports that the agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world.
The newspaper based its reporting on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, as well as interviews with U.S. intelligence officials. The Post says the records feed a database that stores information about the locations of hundreds of millions of devices — at least. The Post reports:
"The NSA does not target Americans' location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones 'incidentally,' a legal term that connotes a foreseeable but not deliberate result.
"One senior collection manager, speaking on condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said 'we are getting vast volumes' of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data is often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year."
Do read the full article on The Post's website, which also has a graphic that explains how the NSA tracks people.
As NPR's Larry Abramson reported in September, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had been trying to get intelligence officials to confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of a program that collects cellphone tracking information on Americans. When Wyden asked NSA Director Keith Alexander about that at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Alexander said, no — not under "the current program."
Here's more from Larry:
"That would be the effort authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, under which the NSA collects records of nearly all the phone traffic in the United States. Wyden pushed hard: Has the NSA ever planned to or ever actually collected those records, perhaps under another legal authority? Alexander would not say yes or no.
"This dance is significant because earlier this year, Sen. Wyden played the same game with National Intelligence Director James Clapper, asking him whether the government collects data on all Americans.
"Clapper said no — then leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden proved him wrong, and Clapper later apologized. But at the time, Wyden could not say what he clearly knew, that the collection effort included domestic calls, because the program was — and still is — classified."
Update at 5:37 p.m. ET Reactions
In a statement on the Post's story, ACLU Staff Attorney Catherine Crump said:
"It is staggering that a location-tracking program on this scale could be implemented without any public debate, particularly given the substantial number of Americans having their movements recorded by the government. The paths that we travel every day can reveal an extraordinary amount about our political, professional, and intimate relationships. The dragnet surveillance of hundreds of millions of cell phones flouts our international obligation to respect the privacy of foreigners and Americans alike. The government should be targeting its surveillance at those suspected of wrongdoing, not assembling massive associational databases that by their very nature record the movements of a huge number of innocent people."
The Center for Democracy and Technology said "it's time for Congress to finally act to rein in NSA surveillance."