back to article NSA: Yes we 'experimented' with US mobile tracking. But we didn't inhale

The US National Security Agency has recently admitted to experimenting with bulk collection of mobile phone locations, but denied it ever actually used the information. This is unlike its European contemporaries, which apparently devolved the task of collecting mobile phone data to the network operators years ago. The NSA …


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  1. poopypants


    It's OK, I'm sure they didn't inhale.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Bill didn't inhale, Monica didn't suck, the NSA didn't roger us soundly up the fundamental orifice, and pink elephants can fly.

  2. edge_e
    Thumb Up

    Is this a first?

    A well rounded, well reasoned, balanced article on el reg?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is this a first?

      Shockingly, it even manages to make the case FOR intercept as well. What many people seem to forget is that law enforcement needs those powers to do their job, but shouldn't abuse those privileges (which is what they are) any more than the flashing blue lights should be used to get a pizza back to the police station in time.

      The current abuse of such privileges should be stamped on pretty hard IMHO. Privileges without transparency could only end in tears, and that's what the US is presently busy demonstrating.

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        Re: Is this a first?

        I've no problem with the concept of targeted intercept. It's a fundamental tool of modern policing and important for defending our nation against threats both external and domestic.

        But you get a fucking warrant from an actual judge and you declassify any and all requests that do not pose an ongoing threat to national security 24 hours after arrests are made. You revisit any still-classified items every 6 months and you declassify everything that can be declassified.

        Targeted intercept is fine. Dragnets absolutely are not. Secret dragnets authorized by secret laws and secret courts hushed up by secret national security letters are something that should be triggering a goddamned revolution.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Re: Is this a first?

      I agree and it would also appear that at least for mobile phone data the balance of oversight and access to information seems about right in Europe. The first article on the register that acknowledges that terrorist plots may well have been foiled, and that this information is invaluable in solving crimes.

      Makes a bit of a change from the Rabid Anti-NSA/GCHQ articles.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Is this a first?

        "Makes a bit of a change from the Rabid Anti-NSA/GCHQ articles."

        Though praising Europe's (*) proper handling of such data and contrasting it with the NSA's is not exactly a ringing endorsement. But I agree it's laudable there's an article that explains the issues well instead of just freaking out over the intrusions.

        (*) BTW, in the UK, "Europe" is more often than not understood to mean "the nutters over there on the mainland" rather than including the UK. Which even after 10 years here I still haven't quite got used to.

      2. Schultz

        ...the balance of oversight and access to information seems about right in Europe...

        There seems to be a constant struggle, at least in Germany, about how much data the law enforcement agencies are allowed to access. At least the fight is in the open and the result seems to offer a decent compromise between the proponents of total surveillance and those of total liberty.

        Doing everything in secrecy, the apparent modus operandi in the US, is surely much easier for the agencies. Until the secrets are revealed. So much for shortcuts in a democratic society.

    3. streaky

      Re: Is this a first?

      No it isn't balanced because it swallows the lines - both from the EU and the US - in spite of the fact the NSA is obviously going to lie about their capability (you can tell they're lying because there was no refusal of comment - it's the USA that mandated these systems in all phones many years ago).

      1. streaky

        Re: Is this a first?

        Not for nothing but the volume of data that was recently offered up to the Met puts a big hole in the EU story too. There's clearly no oversight or prosecution when it all goes wrong.

  3. Don Jefe

    Covering Costs

    Covering costs to satisfy government demands is such a loaded statement. You aren't allowed to gouge the Feds on price, but you don't have to. You just assign 15 engineers, a project manager, a compliance officer and somebody from legal to handle the request that could be handled by one or two people. It is done everyday.

    The government can only demand that the billable time for your staff not be above and beyond what you change a private entity. They can't tell you how to manage internal operations. If you say it takes 10 people, then it takes 10 people.

  4. James 51

    Pesky rules, they only get in the way. Most of the NSA stories seem to be about the accumulation of power in general rather than targeted allocation of resources to tackle specific threats to nation security. Power like this needs serious restricted access and powerful oversight. There was in interesting program on Radio4 recently about how ineffective the oversight for surveillance is in the UK.

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      It's interesting comparing the theory in that article with that practice in that programme, at least when it comes to the UK...

  5. ðøþ“ßj}²\ßð¹|²

    hard to count

    > It's hard to count foiled terrorist plots

    No, it is not. When they do manage to foil one they do so with as much fanfare as possible. Understandable given that we all have budgets to maintain.

    1. Thomas Whipp

      Re: hard to count

      all you can say is that there are examples where the security services have made a fanfare about having stopped particular plots - you have absolutely no data on what they havent publicised.

      How would you ever know if someone was identified as being crucial to a terror plot but that the authorities didnt want to advertise the source of their intel, so they are picked up for say handling stolen goods instead.

      It could be zero, it could be two a week - neither you or I know.

      1. James Micallef Silver badge

        Re: hard to count

        Hard to count but easy to estimate. The world didn't suddenly become full of extremist nutters 10 years ago after 9/11 , so the number of plots over a long-ish time period would be about the same. In the 10 years before 9/11, there was AFAIK 1 attack on the WTC that caused relatively little damage, and Oklahoma City which was a 'domestic' nutter, and a couple of big bombings outside the US. For 9/11 itself, the US had the intel they just couldn't put the pieces together.

        In the 10 years since, there's been the shoe bomber (foiled on the plane but not picked up by security services), Boston recently and maybe a couple of minor cases in US, and a couple of big bombings outside the US. It's difficult to be sure because of the sparsity of data, but the level of successful or partly successful attacks before and after patriot act seem about the same.

        So while I am sure that current security forces ARE foiling serious terrorist plots, they aren't doing so at a higher rate than was the case with old security practices. Bottom line, if they took all the gazillions being spent on NSA and the billions being spent on making sure no-one gets on board a plane with a bottle of mineral water, and invested those into paying actual policemen to do real detective work, there would be the same level of security with less intrusion and more convenience.

        Oh, and with a lot less budgets for a lot of government entities, contractors and defence suppliers. Isn't that the point?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lies, lies, lies...

    NSA does not need to take the info covertly when FISA court orders can have the companies turn the info over to them overtly. Another lie from the pantomime horse of the US gov. Of course they are collecting cell location and call data. It tracks people to a fine degree and allows them to search back in history to see where that person has been.

    Euro agencies keep the info a year. NSA keeps it forever.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    " admitted to experimenting with bulk collection of mobile phone locations, but denied it ever actually used the information."

    unlike Google....

  8. Gomez Adams

    As I happen to have two mobile phones (I keep my old one as a backup on PAYG) how can the spooks be certain which of the two places I may actually be for certain?

    1. Bernard M. Orwell

      It's the one thats moving....

      1. Don Jefe

        Were I a Director of Spooks, I would plan for a scenario in which a suspect had multiple phones, by having multiple agents...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I'd guess in most cases the one that has last moved gives away your real location. Unless of course you hand the other phone to a friend to randomly move about with it.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "how can the spooks be certain which of the two places I may actually be for certain?"

      There's always the chance of error.

      In the UK they could just check up the CCTV or traffic cameras against a place and time that the phone has been tracked (common enough in serious criminal investigations). In countries less in love with surveillance cameras the limited coverage would make that more difficult, but theres other ways of cross matching people to locations. For example, you probably wouldn't hand your ATM card to somebody else with your PIN, so its a fair guess that an ATM withdrawal on your card is you, and a phone at the same place and time probably means you're carrying it.

  9. Ralph B
    Big Brother

    Thank God

    The US Guvmint shutdown won't affect the NSA spying operations.

    So that's alright then, isn't it?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Thank God

      "The US Guvmint shutdown won't affect the NSA spying operations."

      There's a delicious irony that there's no money to provide the services US citizens might want and might ask for, but plenty of their money to pay for them to be spied upon without their consent.

      I think we can dispense with "Land of the Free" , but in future how would our colonial cousins like to refer to their fatherland?

      1. DJO Silver badge

        Re: Thank God

        "The US Guvmint shutdown won't affect the NSA spying operations."

        Strangely it does not affect the payments to congressmen or members of the senate either.

        I think we can dispense with "Land of the Free" , but in future how would our colonial cousins like to refer to their fatherland?

        Choose from:

        "Land of the once free"

        "Land of the formerly free"

        "Land of the free for a given value of free"

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Thank God

          "Land of the free for a given value of free"

          I think you're onto a winner with that. And it would avoid confusion with Belize, whose national anthem is "Land of the free".

      2. Don Jefe

        Re: Thank God

        The NSA doesn't really have a budget. They have a line item on the big report but the rest of their funds are disbursed without much oversight or any public record keeping. They, like the CIA, never run short of money.

        Besides, James Clapper strikes me as a Lex Luthor kind of guy. It wouldn't surprise me if they were siphoning off rounding errors from every electronic transaction on the planet. (The last line is a joke).

    2. Mephistro
      Big Brother

      Re: Thank God

      "The US Guvmint shutdown won't affect the NSA spying operations."

      Wow! I feel safer now!

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Apple is first point of call?

    Considering Apple servers are meant to cough up 400 IDs per hotspot, collecting via via location services as you walk by, I'm sure they will experiment with tracking people that way.

    Got nothing to hide and you will be safe.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It was one college

    It doesn't make me gay for location!

  12. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Looks like *charging* for this information is the *only* way to limit the fishing expeditions.

    BTW Most of the cases in the article are for criminal cases, not "national security."

    Those remain pretty damm near whatever the UK govt says they are.

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  14. dan1980

    Accountability is key

    In all government endeavours - all programs, plans, laws and policies - the most important thing is accountability.

    Accountability is how we make sure that our elected officials, who are paid by the public purse, are acting in the best interests of that public. All else is just a pretty line to try and distract people. It doesn't matter the supposed justification, it doesn't matter the 'national security' issues - you MUST be accountable to the public.

    There is a word for governments that refuse to be answerable to the people, and it's not 'democracy'.

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