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 "comprehensive communications routing information" from Verizon. On Sunday, NSA officials confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that other major US telcos, including AT&T and Sprint Nextel, have received similar orders.
But although the WSJ's sources agreed that such court orders give the NSA sufficient authority to log the locations of every call placed or received, they said the agency does not routinely track callers' whereabouts.
In fact, in a statement provided to the WSJ over the weekend, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the NSA program in question doesn't collect "any cell phone locational information," including which towers were used to place or receive calls.
According to NSA officials – who spoke to the WSJ anonymously – the agency doesn't bother tracking people via their mobile phones because such data "doesn't provide sufficient intelligence value" to justify the resources that would be needed to do so.
All that's as may be, but an important point to remember in all of this is that the Verizon referenced in the leaked court order is not Verizon Wireless, the telco's mobile carrier division. Rather, it's Verizon Business Network Services, a division that provides a variety of IP-based voice, data, and "converged communications" services to companies.
Similarly, AT&T and Sprint Nextel both have substantial stakes in the wireline data, VoIP, and long distance communications businesses.
If the documents leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden only apply to the wired divisions of these companies, there's nothing to say that other NSA programs don't focus exclusively on wireless.
In much the same way that a series of online service providers earlier denied that the NSA had "direct access" to their servers via its PRISM program, the NSA seems to have crafted sufficiently narrow language to allow it to deny certain characterizations of its programs while simultaneously not disclosing too much.
For example, without saying exactly how many US phone records it gathered in 2012, the agency said that "fewer than 300" phone records of Americans had actually been reviewed. But note how it mentions "Americans." No word was given on how many foreign nationals' calls had been snooped.
The agency further reiterated its claim that the program revealed in the Verizon court order is limited in scope, saying that it must be reviewed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court every 90 days, and that all data from it must be destroyed after five years. Exactly what data is being destroyed, however – that, we still don't know. ®