Risk
10/3/2013
11:07 AM
50%
50%

NSA Discloses Cellphone Location Tracking Tests

National Security Agency director tells Congress that the 2010 mass surveillance pilot program has been discontinued -- at least for the moment.

9 Android Apps To Improve Security, Privacy
9 Android Apps To Improve Security, Privacy
(click image for larger view)
The head of the National Security Agency told Congress Wednesday that the intelligence agency launched a test program in 2010 to see if it could track Americans' location en masse, using the signals put out by people's cellphones.

According to NSA director General Keith Alexander, the pilot program, which concluded in 2011, was designed to test whether the captured tracking information could be reconciled with databases of information already gathered by the agency's digital dragnet.

"In 2010 and 2011, NSA received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format, but that data was not used for any other purposes and was never available for intelligence analysis purposes," Alexander told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, during a hearing titled, "Continued Oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."

But in response to a question from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about whether the agency might track Americans' locations as part of future terrorism investigations, Alexander suggested that the agency wouldn't mind revisiting its ability to monitor the location of every cellphone in the United States. "This may be something that may be a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now," he said.

[ Is John McAfee's new Wi-Fi box really NSA-proof? Read John McAfee Wants To Shield You From NSA. ]

But Alexander also noted -- as has been disclosed before -- that the agency does share information on suspects' cellphone numbers with law enforcement agencies. "When we identify a number, we get that to the FBI and they can get probable cause to get location data that they need," Alexander said. "And that's the reason that we stopped [the pilot program] in 2011."

The revelations over the test program triggered related questions from privacy experts. "Who were the guinea pigs for this 'pilot program?' And did they consent to being tracked this way?" asked "Dissent," which is the handle of the privacy advocate and data breach information blogger who maintains privacy site PogoWasRight.com. "If not, where was the legal justification or warrant that permitted this?"

The fact that legislators were learning about the test two years after it happened also lead to questions about whether Congress has adequate oversight of the intelligence agency. "The NSA's attempt to collect this data shows the need for stronger legislative oversight of the agency's activities, but the fact is that federal, state and local law enforcement are already regularly collecting cellphone location information without a warrant," ACLU legislative counsel Christopher Calabrese told The Guardian.

Calabrese also suggested that the revelations should drive Congress to finally make clear what types of privacy rights Americans should expect, especially when it comes to having their location tracked. "Last year a majority of the Supreme Court recognized that location information is sensitive, and we need legislation that respects privacy rights when it comes to Americans' movements," he said.

The revelations over the cellphone tracking pilot program came after a July report revealed that the NSA can track cellphones even when they appear to be switched off. According to information published by The Washington Post, the capability was developed to allow CIA and paramilitary units, as well as clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) teams, to use al-Qaeda leaders' cellphones to track them in real time, for the purpose of then killing or capturing them.

Technically speaking, tracking "off" cellphones hinged on the fact that even when apparently deactivated, a phone's baseband processor may remain active, pinging a cell tower every 10 minutes to retrieve SMS messages. As a result, should the NSA or Congress choose to pursue mass cellphone location tracking in the future, nothing short of removing a battery from a phone -- when that's even possible -- would prevent people's cellphones from being tracked.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Thomas Claburn
50%
50%
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Moderator
10/3/2013 | 11:36:10 PM
re: NSA Discloses Cellphone Location Tracking Tests
If the protections promised in the U.S. Constitution matter, I'd say this is more than a non-starter kind of piece. Being a government official doesn't exempt you from the law.
msbpodcast
50%
50%
msbpodcast,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/3/2013 | 5:36:56 PM
re: NSA Discloses Cellphone Location Tracking Tests
The problem is not that towers ping phones and vice-versa but that the NSA is trying to ping EVERYBODY'S PHONE ALL THE TIME. (We'd already rejected Pointdexter's TIA, why is it back again?)

If you've done nothing wrong, why is YOUR phone appearing on their innumerable lists?

If you've done nothing wrong, why are YOU being tracked?
TomM765
50%
50%
TomM765,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/3/2013 | 4:40:51 PM
re: NSA Discloses Cellphone Location Tracking Tests
This is a over sensational non-starter kind of piece. Virtually every police force in this country has the same kind of cell tower ping position "tracking" set up for non GPS (or if GPS disabled) phones for reverse emergency positioning. Old tech method that's been in widespread use for well over a decade that has plenty of legal backing. You should tone down the shilling a bit.
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon
Current Issue
Dark Reading Tech Digest, Dec. 19, 2014
Software-defined networking can be a net plus for security. The key: Work with the network team to implement gradually, test as you go, and take the opportunity to overhaul your security strategy.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2009-5027
Published: 2014-12-26
** REJECT ** DO NOT USE THIS CANDIDATE NUMBER. ConsultIDs: CVE-2010-2062. Reason: This candidate is a reservation duplicate of CVE-2010-2062. Notes: All CVE users should reference CVE-2010-2062 instead of this candidate. All references and descriptions in this candidate have been removed to pre...

CVE-2010-1441
Published: 2014-12-26
Multiple heap-based buffer overflows in VideoLAN VLC media player before 1.0.6 allow remote attackers to cause a denial of service (application crash) or possibly execute arbitrary code via a crafted byte stream to the (1) A/52, (2) DTS, or (3) MPEG Audio decoder.

CVE-2010-1442
Published: 2014-12-26
VideoLAN VLC media player before 1.0.6 allows remote attackers to cause a denial of service (invalid memory access and application crash) or possibly execute arbitrary code via a crafted byte stream to the (1) AVI, (2) ASF, or (3) Matroska (aka MKV) demuxer.

CVE-2010-1443
Published: 2014-12-26
The parse_track_node function in modules/demux/playlist/xspf.c in the XSPF playlist parser in VideoLAN VLC media player before 1.0.6 allows remote attackers to cause a denial of service (NULL pointer dereference and application crash) via an empty location element in an XML Shareable Playlist Format...

CVE-2010-1444
Published: 2014-12-26
The ZIP archive decompressor in VideoLAN VLC media player before 1.0.6 allows remote attackers to cause a denial of service (invalid memory access and application crash) or possibly execute arbitrary code via a crafted archive.

Best of the Web
Dark Reading Radio
Archived Dark Reading Radio
Join us Wednesday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. Eastern Time to hear what employers are really looking for in a chief information security officer -- it may not be what you think.