The NSA is maintaining a mobile device tracking program that logs up to five billion updates per day around the world, according to a new report.
The Washington Post, citing government sources and documents leaked by Edward Snowden, reports that the US intelligence agency has built a massive database of locational information gathered as part of its wiretapping activities that can be used to map out user activity around the globe.
According to the report, the locational data is not deliberately targeted by authorities, but rather is obtained when the agency targets a single individual's mobile activities and monitors that person's communications.
In the process of collecting the surveillance data, the NSA is said to also be obtaining locational information from other handsets which connect to a mobile communications tower or wi-fi hotspot to initiate communications. This allows the NSA to gather locational data on all devices within a certain area at any given time.
The report suggests that the collected information is used by the NSA to identify possible associates and accomplices for a known target. By analyzing the locational data and finding common numbers across logs on multiple towers, analytics tools are able to eventually spot devices which appear alongside the target.
Government sources told the post that the collection is only being used to track possible 'co-travelers' and has not been deemed by NSA officials to be illegal surveillance.
The report did not mention any involvement from the GCHQ, though the UK intelligence service has previously proven to be deeply involved with the NSA on many of the electronic surveillance activities brought to light by former contractor Snowden.
The revelation is the latest in what has already proven to be a government surveillance program whose scope reaches beyond anything previously imagined by most citizens. That program has included massive collections of phone records, web correspondence and surfing activities by individuals suspected of terrorism and serious crimes.
The revelations have triggered a debate over the extent to which governments should have surveillance capabilities and has brought backlash from many firms in the private sector who have objected to the covert tapping of their private networks and internal correspondence. ®