Why can NSA track phone locations? Because the president said so

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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A National Security Agency program is authorized to track billions of cellphones’ location data via a presidential order, according to an agency statement released Friday.

The Washington Post reports that the NSA tracks about five billion cellphone locations daily overseas, according to more documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

That program was never authorized by Congress, but does not violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act because of Executive Order 12333.

Former President Ronald Reagan signed E.O. 12333 in 1981 to establish surveillance powers overseas during the Cold War — long before the age of a cellphone in every pocket.

“Again, the Agency’s E.O. 12333 collection is outward facing,” an NSA spokeswoman said Friday in The Hill. We are not intentionally acquiring domestic information through this capability.”

The spokeswoman said the NSA “tries to avoid” intercepting the mobile phone location data of Americans, but when it does, data collectors use “minimization procedures” to weed out and occasionally dispose of the data.

“This capability has been used in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including war zones, where terrorists are actively planning to do harm to the nation,” the spokeswoman said.

Documents leaked by Snowden earlier this summer revealed a mass surveillance program known as PRISM, part of which lets the NSA collect almost all domestic phone call information, including numbers dialed and the duration of conversations. At the time, the agency claimed to have no way of tracking mobile phone location data.

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