A major U.S. newspaper is reporting that the clandestine National Security Agency is tracking the location of cellphones around the world in a vast effort to follow known intelligence targets and the people they are connecting with.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the spy agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day with the surveillance, and then analyzing the movements of the cellphone users and possible terrorism threats they pose to the U.S. and other countries.
The newspaper said the revelation of the surveillance comes from the massive cache of documents disclosed earlier this year by former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden. He is now living in asylum in Russia even as the U.S. seeks his extradition to stand trial on espionage charges.
The Post said an anonymous NSA official, speaking with the agency’s permission, told it that the government is “getting vast volumes” of location data from the spying by tapping into cables that connect the world’s mobile networks. The agency said it is not targeting the location of Americans on purpose, but that the surveillance “incidentally” picks up the location of tens of millions of Americans who annually travel overseas.
Cellphones broadcast their locations continually, even when no one is making a call or sending a text message.
Snowden’s disclosure of the documents to Britain’s Guardian newspaper and the Post has alarmed U.S. national security officials, who say the surveillance has thwarted potential terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies in Europe. Meanwhile, some U.S. lawmakers have voiced concern about the scope of the spying and are considering new restraints on the surveillance, but none has been enacted as yet.