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Cellphones Privacy

NSA Abandoned Project To Track Cell Phone Locations 70

Posted by Soulskill
from the turns-out-we're-all-really-boring dept.
barlevg writes "The Washington Post reports that NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander testified before the Senate about an experimental NSA program to track location data from cell phones in 2011, but abandoned it because it lacked 'the operational value' it needed. It was not made clear what 'operation value' they were seeking. Alexander said, 'the data collected were never available for intelligence analysis purposes.' He added, 'This may be something that is a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now because when we identify a number we can give that to the FBI, [who can a warrant for the data it needs]. That’s the reason we stopped in 2011.''"
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NSA Abandoned Project To Track Cell Phone Locations

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  • by barlevg (2111272) on Wednesday October 02, 2013 @05:35PM (#45019467)
    If it's anything like location data in Twitter, the reason they probably stopped is because the majority of location-tagged information exchanges from cell phones are made by teens, and the NSA was probably sick of sifting through conversations debating the relative merits of Justin Bieber vs. One Direction.
  • It sounds like what he means is that anyone who wants to hide their data can just turn off their GPS, so you get a bunch of data about people who don't care that someone could know their location. The types of info that have "operational value" are usually the ones that users aren't aware that the NSA can get.

    • Re:Sounds like.. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Wednesday October 02, 2013 @05:43PM (#45019547)

      Yeah, kind of like they "abandoned" Total Information Awareness and just adopted another program that did the exact same thing. This is more of the PR pushback after they've been getting torched for the last year.

      • Yes, this strikes me as more of a "We don't like red apples, so we've abandoned it... Now introducing green apples!"

        • More like: "We don't like red apples, so we've abandoned it... Now introducing rose-colored apples!"

    • Re:Sounds like.. (Score:4, Informative)

      by barlevg (2111272) on Wednesday October 02, 2013 @05:43PM (#45019549)
      Well one question is how they're collecting the location data. If it's from GPS geolocation, that's garbage (my phone's geotag data is usually at least an hour out-of-date) and easy enough to evade or spoof. If they're doing it via cell tower triangulation... that might actually work.
      • by MightyMartian (840721) on Wednesday October 02, 2013 @05:53PM (#45019673) Journal

        So we can translate this as "We've abandoned using a cell phone's geolocation functionality, which is garbage, and now tie into all cell towers and get up to the minute accurate cell phone information, which we grab constantly and archive forever."

      • by AHuxley (892839)
        Cell tower triangulation and in the past aircraft. You get the voice print, conversation, metadata, text and the phones unique brand characteristics.
        The nice domestic legal aspect is you can hide from the telco and hide from federal and state laws. Fly a mil plane over a larger city looking for anti war protesters all year :)
        Contractors get paid, flight hours add up, domestic data flows in. Long term this also insulates the telcos legal department, just looking after correct law enforcement requests.
        • by barlevg (2111272)
          Wouldn't it be cheaper to float a blimp?
          • by RevDisk (740008)
            Even cheaper to just mine photos posted by the protesters themselves, and run photo analysis combined with time stamps on the photos themselves.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Unless you turn off your phone completely or use "airplane mode," they can still get a approximation based on what radio tower you are connected to (much like what google assisted gps does). But why develop an expensive 3rd party program when you can just get the cell phone companies to easily cough up any information they need? There is no need because the capability of such things already exists and easily accessed hence why they cancelled the program due to it being redundant.

      • Recording it permanently does have value however.

        The interesting thing about this is it can't be called legal in any fashion since it could ONLY target US citizens.

        • You need to be a US citizen to have a phone working in the US? Not a non-citizen resident, not a tourist, not a businessman?

          Majority US citizens, yes...ONLY? Not even close.

      • by AHuxley (892839)
        The propaganda value is letting a lot of suckpuppets, pundits, talking heads and tame academics quote this story as saying domestic legal protection work and always have.
    • by gl4ss (559668)

      no no no.

      the operational value is lost because they have the data needed for triangulation if they want from operators ALREADY on tap and that is far superior to snooping some connections for gps strings..

      • I would be somewhat surprised if the NSA does not already know nearly every person's activity down to who they had lunch with every day for the last few years, what they ordered for lunch, and whether the waiter reported the tip as income. They should have software that guesses pretty well who is sleeping with whom, and who's a drug dealer. If you carry a phone in your pocket, all they need is the SSID data your phone has seen to know where you've been. If they get GPS data, they can probably de-fuzz it,

        • by colinnwn (677715)
          Bill Clinton turned off selective availability that degraded the civilian signal accuracy. There's another GPS military band that provides encoded and potentially better location data, but consumer devices, and especially tiny low power GPS receivers in cell phones can't even decode that signal.
    • Re:Sounds like.. (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 02, 2013 @05:49PM (#45019625)

      No, that's not what's being said here. First, GPS has nothing to do with. Phones have GPS systems now, but the foundational problem of a cell phone network is "which tower do I send information to?" A cell phone must be trackable to some extent in order to receive calls. This is done completely with received signal quality (RSQ) metrics and pinging. GPS is not used. You can track a person more finely by noting the strength of several "visible" towers and their relative geographical location.

      Alexander is basically saying, "we set up a system where phone companies would feed us location data based on triangulation of multiple tower strengths (whether raw or pre-processed is unclear) just to see if the NSA computers could handle the basic networking of the task. In the end we decided not the both with the program (although they could), because right now if you need something you can just pass the info off to the FBI, which does the legal legwork all on it's own."

      The operational value that's not present is the ability to know any given person's position in real time, without waiting for warrants. If they have the time to wait, there's another LEA that can do that for them. They decided to spy on people's location just enough to prove that it can do so later, whenever it feels the need.

      • by AHuxley (892839)
        Adamo Bove was the head of security at Telecom Italia and exposed the CIA, SISMI ( ~ the Italian CIA) in court with "strength of several "visible" towers and their relative geographical location" during the CIA/Italy extraordinary rendition affair in 2003.
    • by nurb432 (527695)

      Better turn off your wifi and your cellular radio too. Both of those combined is accurate enough to know where you are within a few meters. Plenty of accuracy to stake out your building in person, or order a drone strike.

      • Better turn off your wifi and your cellular radio too. Both of those combined is accurate enough to know where you are within a few meters. Plenty of accuracy to stake out your building in person, or order a drone strike.

        Approximate accuracy of the various aspects of your cell phone:

        GPS: 3 meters Good enough for a direct drone hit
        Bluetooth: 1-100 meters, depending on the intended use
        WiFi: 20-92 meters. Enough to pick up from the store next door at a shopping center.
        Cell Radio: 10-100 meters, depending on location and type of relay equipment.

        Technically, location of a cell phone by its radio is known as trilateration. This is different from triangulation in that the location is computed "inside out" from the towers to the p

        • by Anonymous Coward

          While it's possibly no longer true, some phones had GPS that was not accessible to users and developers, It was kept permanently switched off to conserve power. However, if you dialed 911, the phone would switch it on for emergency location services.

          That feature still exists in cell phones today. A quick look in my Samsung S3 (here in the USA on a major US carrier) tells me there is a "E911" feaure under "Settings" -> "personal" -> "Location Services" that says (direct quote from the cell phone screen), "E911 Location cannot be turned off on any mobile cellular phone".

    • by icebike (68054)

      It sounds like what he means is that anyone who wants to hide their data can just turn off their GPS, so you get a bunch of data about people who don't care that someone could know their location. The types of info that have "operational value" are usually the ones that users aren't aware that the NSA can get.

      Sounds to me that they didn't have to try to use their own methods of obtaining location data because every single carrier in the country will hand it over as so called meta-data. The carriers know pretty much where you are even if you turn off GPS, and its close enough for NSA purposes.
      They just want to be able to know if Bad-Guy A is meeting with Bad-Guy B, or if either of them just went to the Fertilizer Dealer.

      So rather than waste time asking for the locations data when they need it, they just get all

  • by themushroom (197365) on Wednesday October 02, 2013 @05:49PM (#45019637) Homepage

    I don't know any different, but someone's bound to express doubt that the program went nowhere.

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      different government department already had a system in place for tracking the data they were tracking. and technically they shouldn't be spying on people on american soil anyways since that different department(feds) are supposed to handle that in the first place.

      so it was more of a case of wasting money doing something the left hand already had a system for.

  • by BenSchuarmer (922752) on Wednesday October 02, 2013 @05:59PM (#45019739)
    It's just that the data wasn't as accurate as the data that they get from the microchips they've implanted in our dental fillings.
  • Translation: renamed and doubly funded.

    • Or, like most abandoned government programs, they figured out that they could do it easier some other way and did that instead. Like that time when they retired the SR-71 fleet "without replacing" them...except for spy satellites that made them obsolete.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The first thing that popped into my head when I read this was "Carrier IQ". The timing is almost right as well. Could I be wrong?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 02, 2013 @06:24PM (#45019999)

    The NSA have directly lied and also more often twisted the meaning of words out of their common use, which is properly tantamount to lying.

    This makes accepting *anything* they say problematic.

    At this point the NSA can no longer meaningfully communicate with me.

    • Next week from the Guardian:

      Starting in 2011, the NSA has been tracking mobile phone users across the USA, documents provided by ex-analysis Ed Snowden show. This directly contradicts what the head of the NSA, General "Fuck you, I'm the mother fucking NSA chief BITCHES!" Alexander said last week.

      I.e. whatever Fuck you, I'm the mother fucking NSA chief BITCHES! says, should be taken directly as a lie, and the reality is obviously much worse. As anon coward said, they lie and they twist the truth. Nothing th

      • Next week from the Guardian:

        Starting in 2011, the NSA has been tracking mobile phone users across the USA, documents provided by ex-analysis Ed Snowden show. This directly contradicts what the head of the NSA, General "Fuck you, I'm the mother fucking NSA chief BITCHES!" Alexander said last week.

        I.e. whatever Fuck you, I'm the mother fucking NSA chief BITCHES! says, should be taken directly as a lie, and the reality is obviously much worse. As anon coward said, they lie and they

  • That's what the manufs. say, anyway.
    So smartypants Keith is being facetious here.

  • Well it sounds like they are simply trying to reveal truths of lesser value to redirect attention. I think they have poisoned the perception. The game is that do they think it is worth repairing ? They probably decided ti simply live with this perception.
  • There will never be a time in America's existence where the intelligence agencies "need" geolocation data on the citizens. If that day ever comes we will no longer live in America, as on that day the Constitution would no longer exist.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This shows how little your masters think of you and your ability to conceptually resist their evil. The NSA collect ALL the real-time positional information from EVERY mobile phone company in the USA, having direct hardware connections to the computer systems that gather the data that the US government mandated every phone produce years ago.

    Here's an interesting fact. A few years back, every TV drama assumed that the sheeple viewing KNEW that all cell phones constantly have their location identified by cell

  • by Holi (250190)

    They are just trying to get out ahead of the next Snowden leak.

  • ... I can't call the NSA when I'm drunk and ask, "Could you trace this call and tell me where I am?"

  • in 5, 4, 3, 2...

  • He added, 'This may be something that is a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now because when we identify a number we can give that to the FBI, [who can a warrant for the data it needs].

    Who can WHAT a warrant for the data it needs? Fabricate?! Prestidigitate?! Erect?!

    Stop Self Censoring and Tell Us!

  • I for one believe my new information overlords.
  • It sounds like he's saying it's cheaper/easier to just get it from the carriers rather than directly collect it themselves.
  • Maybe they are setting up a new and more modern tracking technology ...
  • by adsl (595429) on Thursday October 03, 2013 @09:05AM (#45023857)
    As these guys routinely lie about what they do can we believe that they have dropped this program?
    • I think the tone of his statements is basically, "Sure we dabbled in that, and we might again at some point." Not reassuring at all, and not meant to be. And the only issue was "operational value", no moral or legal impediments. I can't imagine anyone reading that article would feel relieved.

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