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Yes, the NSA is tracking cell phone location data worldwide

You’re not even going to believe this: The National Security Agency (heard of them?) is tracking the cell phone locations of millions of people around the world. Oh, wait, did we say “not believe this”? What we meant was, “Of course it is!”

The latest report from the Washington Post based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveals that the NSA collects “5 billion records a day” on the location of cell phones. They are not, however, tracking the location of Americans’ cell phones – not intentionally, anyway. Instead, Americans’ cellphone location information may be collected “incidentally” – not purposefully, but it does happen as the result of tracking other, foreign cell phones. It also likely happens when Americans traveling abroad use their cell phone.

The purpose of the cell phone location tracking is, of course, to identify terrorists and their networks overseas. As the Post reports, “analysts can find cell phones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among individuals using them.” All of this is done using the NSA’s “most powerful” analytics too, called CO-TRAVELER, which gives the NSA the ability “to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect,” according to the report.

While the NSA maintains that collecting and analyzing location data is a key tool in it’s efforts to stop terrorism around the world – you don’t need to pass a government background check to understand that – privacy advocates become acutely nauseated by the idea of dragnet location tracking, giving how much this information can reveal about the lives of those targeted by the NSA.

“The paths that we travel every day can reveal an extraordinary amount about our political, professional, and intimate relationships,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. ”The dragnet surveillance of hundreds of millions of cell phones flouts our international obligation to respect the privacy of foreigners and Americans alike.”

If the ACLU and other civil liberty advocates had their way, the NSA’s data collection and location tracking efforts would be far more limited, without the part where Americans’ location data gets heaped into the agency’s servers. This is essentially the same argument against all of the NSA’s activities that have been revealed as a result of the Snowden leak.

On the flip side, the NSA argues that it is impossible to know in advance what information and data sets will be valuable down the road. So, it just scoops up everything, allowing it to go back and search for specific data later, as needed.

From a regular American’s perspective, this news is likely even less astonishing than all the other NSA spying. We might be against it, for it, or completely ambivalent. But the one thing we are not is surprised.