A Leviathan: The NSA collects 5 billion cellphone records a day, mapping the planet’s population

NSA Co-travellers

The NSA is vacuuming 5 billion cellphone records a day, enabling the spy organization to track the location of individuals, and their relationship with other individuals, around the clock. The vast data represents an unimaginable power to “geo-locate” millions of people across the planet, according to documents given to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden. Since cellphones constantly broadcast location data to nearby masts, the NSA is able to track the movements and networks of people anytime, anywhere, even when GPS is turned off. The leaked documents estimate at least hundreds of millions of devices are part of the NSA’s database.

Americans’ domestic location data is not intentionally collected, but may be “incidentally” gathered whilst targeting foreign nationals. “In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them.”

These hidden relationships are processed by powerful analytical tools and mathematical techniques, known collectively as “CO-TRAVELER“, which allow the NSA to look for previously unknown associates of persons of interest. It is yet another example of the centrality of algorithms to contemporary security.

The most basic analytic tools map the date, time, and location of cellphones to look for patterns or significant moments of overlap. Other tools compute speed and trajectory for large numbers of mobile devices, overlaying the electronic data on transportation maps to compute the likely travel time and determine which devices might have intersected.

The location program is collecting such an enormous volume of information, that, according to a 2012 NSA briefing, it is “outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store” data. An agency spoken stated that whenever US cellphone data are collected, it is not covered by the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizes.


The NSA intercepts the planetary data from 10 major “SIGADS” – Signals Intelligence Activity Designators. The Washington Post lists two of these: STORMBREW and WOLFPOINT. The former “collects data from 27 telephone links known as OPC/DPC pairs, which refer to originating and destination points and which typically transfer traffic from one provider’s internal network to another’s. That data include cell tower identifiers, which can be used to locate a phone’s location.”

Want to be anonymous? Apparently, turning your phone off, using disposable cellphones, and only turning the phone on for a short period to make a call, is Red Flag behavior. CO-TRAVELER processes when cellphones connect to nearby masts simultaneously, in order to assist in mapping a network of potentially dangerous co-travelers.

For the WP’s full graphic, see here.

For more on the NSA, see here.

This entry was posted in Empire, NSA, Secrecy and Surveillance and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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