back to article NSA: We COULD track you by your phone ... if we WANTED to

Officials from the National Security Agency (NSA) have confirmed that the agency has the ability to track the location of any phone in the US, but said that it voluntarily chooses not to do so. Earlier this month, a secret court order leaked to The Guardian newspaper revealed that the NSA had been granted authority to demand " …


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  1. Mike VandeVelde

    doesn't collect "any cell phone locational information,"

    the quotes are in the wrong spot, it should be like this:

    doesn't "collect" any cell phone locational information

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Saying _we_ don't track you doesn't mean you aren't tracked

    They don't need to track the phones. They can simply order the carriers to do it on their behalf.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Saying _we_ don't track you doesn't mean you aren't tracked

      "hey don't need to track the phones. They can simply order the carriers to do it on their behalf."

      You're beginning to speak fluent civil servant.

      Thumbs up for your mastery of the language.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. SuccessCase

      Re: Saying _we_ don't track you doesn't mean you aren't tracked

      Journalists have really missed the ball on this subject for years. Probably this is because for many years, even for inquisitive journalists, a background sense of civic responsibility and general national pride (which is not necessarily a bad thing) has meant that for much of the time few were actively looking for the ball.

      Some 10 years ago the EU published a paper on Echelon, which was far more revealing and detailed about NSA and GCHQ "listening" capabilities than most of the recent stories on this have grasped. Indeed it is sad so many (mostly US) based journalists have been denigrating Snowden's claims without first checking existing public documents and research. Snowden is hardly revealing anything new or that was not known to those who cared to look. Indeed I think the EU paper on Echelon is still available and worth a read and I promise you will be left thinking "shit if they could do that then, imagine what they could do now."

      The real difference is Snowden has put the face of an intelligent and concerned young man on the assertions of malfeasance. As another aside, Ars Techinca called his claim he might be assassinated, "hyperbolic." Seriously have these journalists read anything in the history of the CIA before putting pen to paper? The claim can only now appear remotely hyperbolic because the CIA are astutely attuned to public perception and Snowden has made himself a well known figure. That is the best protection he can hope for and it will now probably protect him. But given his place of work and the level of knowledge he will have had about what goes on, to call his fear "hyperbolic" or to paint his (highly understandable) paranoia as melodrama is severely naive, not to mention retarded.

      Additionally these are SPY AGENCIES we are taking about. They feel entirely justified in lying in order to hide their capability from public view (though, I once read a very interesting and convincing article by an ex CIA director on why, generally, they try very hard to avoid lying. The CIA World Fact Book and the unvarnished story it brings the citizens of authoritarian states the world over provides a great example of the power of truth telling - you could read it for a week and the needle on your innate bullshit-o-meter, won't have come off zero even once. nor will you have encountered any if the phraseology if the propagandist, but that's another interesting discussion).

      So this brings us to the point of dissembling, where what is said is not necessarily technically a lie but it is a lie in spirit. The classic example of dissembling is Bill Clinton, when the accusation surfaced he was having an affair with Monica Lewinsky and he was asked about the affair. Knowing what the question was about, knowing what the concerns "of the country" were he famously replied "I did not have sex with that woman" He felt a tenuous thread justified what he was saying because, (presumably when he was 14 years old and excitedly discussed such things with his mates), a blow job wasn't sex. It was just a blow job.

      When it comes to fussing up surveillance capabilities, it is already well established the spy agencies are dissemblers with form and these current statements should be read with this in mind.

      Which links us back to the 10 year old paper on Echelon I mentioned. Even back then sources claimed the very tight integration between the NSA and GCHQ helped avoid problems with the constitution and UK privacy laws. Two organisations, it is said, have an agreement and work on a quid-pro-quo basis. The Americans process our intelligence raw domestic data feeds and we do the same for them for theirs.

      Not anonymous because there's no fucking point.

  3. Oninoshiko

    Here's a shovel!

    you know, I would think when you can barely see the top of the hole, you might wanna stop digging.

  4. Schultz


    So they don't "collect" (i.e. "look at") the location data of every citizen, but do they might still gather the data to "collect" at another time of their choosing. And this in not me making up new meanings for old words, the government officials invented this newspeak.

    1. KBeee

      Re: Semantics

      Don't worry about Semantics, they've got 23 Lawyers to worry about that...

      1. mhoulden

        Re: Semantics

        On the subject of lawyers, what would happen if enough people brought a class action suit against the NSA and the telcos for breach of privacy? It would probably make Jarndyce vs Jarndyce look like the small claims court.

        1. Don Jefe

          Re: Semantics

          Another Bush mkII era law guaranteed retroactive and future immunity for telcos cooperating in federal investigations.

        2. Gannon (J.) Dick

          Re: Semantics

          I'm sure it would make the FISA Court long for the civility of Arkell v. Pressdram too.

      2. Gannon (J.) Dick

        Re: Semantics

        I need to hang out with people who have not been meticulously programmed. I don't remember a thing about the programming, but when you said 23 Lawyers I said "half a busload" so it must have been successful.

  5. chris lively


    Most likely this is a case of semantics in which the reporter can't parse English well enough to know that the NSA is feeding them a worthless quote. Let's see, the NSA says:

    *they* do not "collect any cell phone locational information". Of course not, the phone companies do that for them and just send the info over. Besides, I'm sure the field name isn't "CellPhoneLocation" by rather titled "WhereThePerpIsAt"

    "including which towers were used to place or receive calls" - True, after all why would they want the tower locations when having Verizon/AT&T/whoever just send the GPS locations is better?

    The NSA "doesn't bother tracking people via their mobile phones" because "such data doesn't provide sufficient intelligence value". Total BS and proven wrong with recent stories about a group stealing $130k worth of watches from a store... and their own statements in the very same news "article".

    Of course, all of the above statements are funny when combined with "Queries to the database are documented and audited" --- Database of *what* exactly? If it's not call history and cell locations just what is in the database? And, how does this work with the prior statement about "the data doesn't provide sufficient intelligence to justify the resources that would be required to use it"... ?

    To sum up (per the original WSJ article):

    In 2012 the NSA queried a database for *only* 300 phone records of Americans. That database, mind you, doesn't maintain call records or locational information; nor does it provide the intelligence necessary to justify the resources for it's existence. If all these things were true, then why bother querying it?

    Pure and total BS. Please refrain from simply parroting NSA crap designed to confuse people.

    1. Don Jefe

      What would you expect from the WSJ, factual reporting? If it isn't a face to face interview with corporate types, anything coming from the WSJ is worthless propaganda for the defense and insurance industries.

      They rarely have named sources, and this article 'The Snowden Mythology' is no different. Their op-ed pieces have always been sketchy, but since Murdoch bought them they've become nothing more than a supermarket tabloid with a distinctive sketch style. This whole thing is the contract industry pushing back because they're scared of being cut out of the loop.

      1. Steve Knox
        Thumb Up

        @Don Jefe

        "... since Murdoch bought them they've become nothing more than a supermarket tabloid with a distinctive sketch style..."

        That's a nice turn of phrase,and the best thing is you can apply it to pretty much any Murdoch property.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    On the bright side, if they're not collecting any data to store in that database of theirs the owners of the 300 phone numbers they queried can all feel very safe... no, I'm not sold on that either.

  7. bag o' spanners

    elementary , my dear Watson

    300 people? Go tell it to the Spartans.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pretty much the definition of over-reach.

    If you're only going to need 300 phone records a year, then it's perfectly possible to get warrants and do it on a case-by-case basis, rather than warrantlessly sucking in all the data for absolutely everything and throwing away 99.9999% of it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Pretty much the definition of over-reach.

      But if they did that they couldn't build town size datacenters, private airports and buy fleets of silent black helicopters. It says right in the ops manual for designing a super secret agency that you are nothing if you don't have those things.

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: Pretty much the definition of over-reach.

      Check out this gem:

      "Feinstein said the only new piece of information her committee received over the weekend was notification from the administration that the database of millions of phone numbers was queried 300 times in all of 2012.

      “That’s all. That’s not content. That’s querying it" ...Feinstein said.

      What is that supposed to mean? They ran 300 queries that returned nulls? Maybe I'm being too technical, but any time I run a query I expect it to return some type of content.

      1. Katie Saucey

        @Don Jefe :Re: Pretty much the definition of over-reach.

        I learned to filter out any quote from Feinstein after this gem regarding high capacity magazines.

        "..We have federal regulations and state laws that prohibit hunting ducks with more than three rounds. And yet it’s legal to hunt humans with 15-round, 30-round, even 150-round magazines."

        She's beyond comprehension.

      2. Eddy Ito

        Re: Pretty much the definition of over-reach.

        Only Feinstein would try defending a massively expensive, expansive and invasive program by pretty much saying it doesn't do anything. I'm sorry Diane, if all you get is querying and no content then you're doing it wrong and essentially saying the users are too stupid to get results doesn't make it better, it makes it worse.

        Please Diane give us all a present for your 80th birthday and retire. I can nearly guarantee the voters of CA will replace you with some just as looney and none of the other states will notice the change.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Pretty much the definition of over-reach.

        300 queries - absolutely: SELECT * FROM * and then pass results on to 300 of your closest agency buddies at the FBI, CIA, NRO, IRS, etc. So few queries, so much fun.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What is that supposed to mean?

        She's referring to them not having the content of the calls, just the metadata; she's not saying the queries returned nothing.

    3. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: Pretty much the definition of over-reach.

      The problem is, these people are taking a long view. At the risk of seeming to be a bit of a nut, there is a finite risk that large numbers of the population are going to become the sort of people that the governments will want to have a handle on. Stocks of food supplies are very small these days, and a global bad harvest, such as we could have this year, may lead to food shortages. Surplus electricity production is very low in many countries due to lack of investment in the right places, and gas stores have been run down. Another bad winter such as the one we have just had could lead to power cuts. When people start to lose access to food and heating, they have a tendency to become restless. Governments have fallen for less.

      Much of what is being done seems to have the underlying assumption that the people are a real source of threat to the powers that be. I don't like it, but I can't entirely say that I wouldn't be doing the same in their position.

  9. Herbert Meyer
    Big Brother


    American call phones are required BY LAW to be locatable, either by GPS hardware in the phone, or by triangulating delay times from two or more cell towers. It is required for enhanced 911 service, so calls to 911 can be located, without user intervention or knowledge of their location. How convenient.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: e911

      To be fair, every GPS equipped mobile I've ever seen had two GPS options: 'Location Services On' and '911 Emergency Only', I don't think it's a big surprise to most users.

      1. Steven Roper

        Re: e911

        " 'Location Services On' and '911 Emergency Only'"

        I think you meant: 'Location Services On' and '911 Emergency / Security Agency Monitoring Only'


    2. Charles Manning

      Re: e911

      You can't determine location from cell towers using triangulation.

      You can, however with trilateration.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: e911

      Of course e911 is such a useful service that it has just become mandatory in European cars post 2014. e112/e999. All cars will then feature a mandatory GSM and a mandatory GPS/Gallileo.

      Meanwhile, on an unrelated subject which news story of the last ten days received a UK D-Notice?

      D-Notice, June 7, 2013

      Private and Confidential: Not for publication, broadcast or use on social media.

      Defence Advisory Notice

      There have been a number of articles recently in connection with some of the ways in which the UK Intelligence Services obtain information from foreign sources.

      Although none of these recent articles has contravened any of the guidelines contained within the Defence Advisory Notice System, the intelligence services are concerned that further developments of this same theme may begin to jeopardize both national security and possibly UK personnel...

  10. Eddy Ito

    Big deal

    These are pretty much the same people who had one of the Boston Marathon bombers on a terrorism watch list and were forewarned by none other than Russia's FSB to pay attention to him two years before. The FBI even interviewed the guy. What good did all that do? The Department of Homeboy Security still couldn't identify the bombers with tons of video and stills and ultimately got the identification from the public after releasing some of the pictures to the press.

    All that spying and tracking, signals blaring, warning alarms sounded and for what? I tell ya, these Big Brother spy agencies like the NSA make the Keystone Cops look like paragons of detective work.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Big deal

      That's the thing, this stuff doesn't work for its intended purpose. If this kind of information was ever erroneously applied it would work wonderfully well though, and that really concerns me. It should concern everyone. One wonky algorithm or a misapplication of some sociologists 'latest findings' and someone is screwed and/or disappeared. No one except the bad guys are safe from mass surveillance.

      1. Ole Juul

        Re: Big deal

        That's the thing, this stuff doesn't work for its intended purpose.

        I think you mean "stated" purpose. We don't know the "intended" purpose - though there some credible suggestions.

    2. Miek
      Big Brother

      Re: Big deal

      "All that spying and tracking, signals blaring, warning alarms sounded and for what? I tell ya, these Big Brother spy agencies like the NSA make the Keystone Cops look like paragons of detective work." -- Or, it may be possible that these atrocities simply work in their interests. "We still live in a dangerous world"

    3. hayseed

      Re: Big deal

      You would think that they'd have Slavic soundex down -jan -ian -yan -aev -ayev etc. but they didn't, so he didn't even show up using his real name!

  11. Graham Marsden
    Big Brother

    "it voluntarily chooses not to do so"

    Oh well, *that's* alright then, isn't it, boys and girls? They say we can trust them and they should know...!

  12. xpusostomos

    Yeah right

    Even if they can't be bothered, how long can it be before they CAN be bothered? There is nothing stopping them, ergo, its merely a matter of when, not whether.

  13. Neoc

    Storm in a teacup

    We all know the NSA does not spy on American citizens. Its charter doesn't allow it.

    Instead, they request foreign Intelligence Agencies to do the spying for them and pass back that information. Perfectly legit then.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Storm in a teacup

      "We all know the NSA does not spy on American citizens. Its charter doesn't allow it."

      Oh, they published it, did they?

      I thought it was still secret.

      1. Neoc

        Re: Storm in a teacup

        Nope (although take with grain of salt for some of these):

  14. Charles Manning

    Well they could tail every citizen too...

    Granted, tracking every cell phone user can be automated meaing that computers could track them, but so can tracking every license plate.

    They can't be bothered tracking everyone and where is the motivation to do so?

    About the only reason they might have is trying to look for patterns after some event.

  15. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Nothing is as it seems, .... Ever ....

    ..... which makes for strange worlds in which nothing is real and all a fabrication

    Of course, what the NSA, and all supposedly inquisitive and intelligent intelligence agencies and corporations and interesting persons are now provided with, is the smarter entity/being /agency/cloud system "grooming" the established traditional executive administrative international business machine and simple military industrial complex MO/V [Modi Operandi/Vivendi] ..... with selfless free and transparent instant global supply of novel and noble sensitive massive controlling information/colossal titanic intelligence which sinks all manner of ships/vehicles/programs in space with secrets to hide for exclusive executive gain rather than share for inclusive mutually beneficial positively reinforcing universal benefit.

    And ITs leaderships need do no more than just quietly patiently wait for those being groomed to wise up to their plight and realise that they are invited to exercise and frighten themselves with the use of sublime and surreal and shocking intelligence systems over which they have zero effective control and even less power input. And this be a place/intelligence space where such leaderships are exercised/sought/phished for and phormed ......

    And don't worry at all about .. "Must be U.S. Citizen with an Active Secret or above security clearance, or eligible for same ..... because if you are made of the right stuff and can do all of the stuff that be needed to be seeded and fed to systems, are you automatically eligible and put on the fast tracks to Active Secret and Above U.S. Citizenry. .......... :-) or a Black Watch List of Persons of Interest, Monitoring and Mentoring Virtual Memes and ESPecial Means and Lines of Quantum Communication for Control of Proprietary Intellectual Property Powering Systems with Advanced CyberIntelAIgent Driver Trains/Super Sub Systems for Secure Protection of Future Source Core Supply.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    NSA: We COULD track you by your phone ... if we WANTED to

    ...And we will when it suits us....

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: NSA: We COULD track you by your phone ... if we WANTED to

      "NSA: We COULD track you by your phone ... if we WANTED to "

      That reminds me of the old gag about the senior police officer who was asked if his force harassed gays and ethnic minorities who replied "Well in an ideal world, but we simply don't have the budget to do both."

  17. We're all in it together


    I thought all they had to do was ask Google for the SSID of anyone they've driven past. Google maps sponsored by NSA, have a nice day now

  18. We're all in it together

    Time saving tip

    Get the NSA to run Facebook then we wouldn't have to bother telling everyone what we're up to. They'd do it for us.

    "Target is brushing teeth"

    "Target is getting ready for work whilst slagging off boss"

    "Target is watching Spongebob - must be a communist"

  19. ukgnome

    Well imagine that

    A security agency states that it could carry out activities that could be described as spying.

    Next you will be telling us that bears defecate in a woods.

    The whole of Prism is such a non story.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Re: Well imagine that

      The PRISM is such a story for a different reason:

      Both the US and UK governments always positioned themselves as bastions of protection of freedom, the rule of law and the rights of their citizens and of all peoples in the world. That is why they say it is necessary to fight against Soviet, North Korean, Vietnamese, Burmese, Chinese, Afgan, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Somalian, Zimbabwean, Russian, etc. forces of oppression and plant their flags of freedom in the barren and hostile soils of these empires of evil.

      But domestically, they are whiter than white and fluffier than little kittens. Except they need more powers to protect their freedom loving populations from paedopirates and terrorphiles.

      But then the Internet happened and Gitmo and Abu Grahib and the dodgy dossier came to light. Then Wikileaks (whether you like Ass-ange or not), now PRISM.

      The bluff has been called and the establishments know it. The relationship between the governments and the peoples is changing now. The pretence is going and there will be more open hostility in this relationship from now on.

      That is why this story is important.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Down

        Re: Well imagine that

        "That is why this story is important."

        Indeed, but if you're concerned, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters?

        The establishment of government, including the civil administration, the main political parties, the security services, and the complicit private companies are all denying that they do it, denying that it is a problem, and trying to weasle-word their way out. Events like the Boston bombings or the murder of Lee Rigby are being mercilessly spun as the case for more and more surveillance, despite the fact that they do not make any such case.

        There is no influential camp demanding change. If the Republicans run Congress, or the Labour party control Westminster, would those parties change a single thing? Nope, more likely they'd put more resource into spying on their own people, and I suspect increasingly into trying to control public debate on all manner of matters that might otherwise embarass the polticians and civil servants.

        Few people in the UK actually died to achieve universal suffrage. Which is quite a good thing because these days my vote is totally worthless, given the effective lack of choice between the corpulent, dishonest incumbent parties, working for themselves or their close mates. Things don't see much different in most other Western "democracies" these days.

  20. Matt Bryant Silver badge


    ".....but an important point to remember.....there's nothing to say.....No word was given on how many foreign nationals' calls had been snooped......."

    Which neatly framed set of intangibles and negatives roughly translates to: "!"

    Instead of just feeding the sheeples' paranoia why don't you go back and ask your "sources" a direct question on each point?


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