Smartphone users worried about being tracked might have more to base their paranoia off of than conspiracy theories. The Wall Street Journal reports that National Security Agency general counsel Matthew Olsen discussed the government’s right to this information at a hearing today.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden asked whether the federal branch has the ability and authority to “use cell site data to track the location of Americans inside the country” without a warrant. Olsen responded, saying, “There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist.” He also remarked Wyden’s was a “very complicated question.”
Senators have been questioning the NSA about geo-tracking, and whether or not citizens are being tracked without their knowledge. Olsen said a memo outlining exactly when the intelligence agency can trace Americans is due in September. But until then, we basically are being told that someone might be looking at our smartphone location data–in some circumstances. What those circumstances are or what is being done with that data remains unknown.
At the moment, the NSA is not legally allowed to collect this type of information of citizens inside the US (the FBI is, however). Location privacy has come up for debate recently, specifically when it applies to whether or not law authorities can use GPS data to track suspects without a warrant for investigation.
The government isn’t alone. Mobile companies also found themselves in hot water regarding location privacy issues when earlier this year it was revealed many different handsets were recording users’ locations. In response, a bill protecting mobile privacy has been drafted called the Location Privacy Protection Act. The legislation would “close current loopholes in federal law to require any company that may obtain a customer’s location information from his or her smartphone or other mobile device to 1) get that customer’s express consent before collecting his or her location data; and 2) get that customer’s express consent before sharing his or her location data with third parties” among other requirements.
One other piece of the bill deals with how law enforcement agencies prosecute the misuse of geo-location data.
Some believe that the Patriot Act is being interpreted to allow the NSA to investigate consumers’ location data without permissions. Wyden is one of them, and said in May that “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.” And now it appears that Wyden and the rest of us are finally getting some (vague) answers: Mobile location tracking remains a gray area that the NSA admits it might be exploiting.