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CO-TRAVELER Analytics: NSA Collects 5 Billion Cellphone Locations Per Day, Tracking Movements/Mapping Relationships

In Archive, Big Brother, NSA, NSA Files, Surveillance on December 5, 2013 at 1:51 AM

12/04/2013

Barton Gellman/Ashkan Soltani/WashingtonPost:

The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, according to top-secret documents and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials, enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.

The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices, according to the officials and the documents, which were provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. New projects created to analyze that data have provided the intelligence community with what amounts to a mass surveillance tool.

The NSA does not target Americans’ location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones “incidentally,” a legal term that connotes a foreseeable but not deliberate result.

One senior collection manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said “we are getting vast volumes” of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data are often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.

In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them.

NSA collects locations in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools — known collectively as CO-TRAVELER — allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.

Sophisticated mathematical tech­niques enable NSA analysts to map cellphone owners’ relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths. Cellphones broadcast their locations even when they are not being used to place a call or send a text message.

CO-TRAVELER and related tools require the methodical collection and storage of location data on what amounts to a planetary scale. The government is tracking people from afar into confidential business meetings or personal visits to medical facilities, hotel rooms, private homes and other traditionally protected spaces.

NSA collects and keeps as many records as it can — 27 terabytes, by one account, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’s print collection.

The location programs have brought in such volumes of information, according to a May 2012 internal NSA briefing, that they are “outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store” data. In the ensuing year and a half, the NSA has been transitioning to a processing system that provided it with greater capacity.

An intelligence lawyer, speaking with his agency’s permission, said location data are obtained by methods “tuned to be looking outside the United States,” a formulation he repeated three times. When U.S. cellphone data are collected, he said, the data are not covered by the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures.

According to top-secret briefing slides, the NSA pulls in location data around the world from 10 major “sigads,” or signals intelligence activity designators.

A sigad known as STORMBREW, for example, relies on two unnamed corporate partners described only as ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT. According to an NSA site inventory, the companies administer the NSA’s “physical systems,” or interception equipment, and “NSA asks nicely for tasking/updates.”

STORMBREW collects data from 27 telephone links known as OPC/DPC pairs, which refer to originating and destination points and which typically transfer traffic from one provider’s internal network to another’s. That data include cell tower identifiers, which can be used to locate a phone’s location.

The agency’s access to carriers’ networks appears to be vast.

“Many shared databases, such as those used for roaming, are available in their complete form to any carrier who requires access to any part of it,” said Matt Blaze, an associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. “This ‘flat’ trust model means that a surprisingly large number of entities have access to data about customers that they never actually do business with, and an intelligence agency — hostile or friendly — can get ‘one-stop shopping’ to an expansive range of subscriber data just by compromising a few carriers.”

Some documents in the Snowden archive suggest that acquisition of U.S. location data is routine enough to be cited as an example in training materials. In an October 2012 white paper on analytic techniques, for example, the NSA’s counterterrorism analysis unit describes the challenges of tracking customers who use two different mobile networks, saying it would be hard to correlate a user on the T-Mobile network with one on Verizon. Asked about that, a U.S. intelligence official said the example was poorly chosen and did not represent the program’s foreign focus. There is no evidence that either company cooperates with the NSA, and both declined to comment.

The NSA’s capabilities to track location are staggering, based on the Snowden documents, and indicate that the agency is able to render most efforts at communications security effectively futile.

Like encryption and anonymity tools online, which are used by dissidents, journalists and terrorists alike, security-minded behavior — using disposable cellphones and switching them on only long enough to make brief calls — marks a user for special scrutiny. CO-TRAVELER takes note, for example, when a new telephone connects to a cell tower soon after another nearby device is used for the last time.

Side-by-side security efforts — when nearby devices power off and on together over time — “assist in determining whether co-travelers are associated . . . through behaviorally relevant relationships,” according to the 24-page white paper, which was developed by the NSA in partnership with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Australian Signals Directorate and private contractors.

A central feature of each of these tools is that they do not rely on knowing a particular target in advance, or even suspecting one. They operate on the full universe of data in the NSA’s FASCIA repository, which stores trillions of metadata records, of which a large but unknown fraction include locations.

The most basic analytic tools map the date, time, and location of cellphones to look for patterns or significant moments of overlap. Other tools compute speed and trajectory for large numbers of mobile devices, overlaying the electronic data on transportation maps to compute the likely travel time and determine which devices might have intersected.

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FASCIA is the National Security Agency’s enormous database containing trillions of device-location records that are collected from a variety of sources. This document shows the volume and types of device-location data collected by the agency.

nsa-fascia-1

This chart shows the huge scale of information ingested by FASCIA – nearly 5 billion records daily

nsa-fascia-2

This slide shows the types of records collected by the NSA into its database

This is an excerpt from a National Security Agency training manual explaining how to determine if a targeted device is “foreign.” It highlights a query for the past 60 days using the CHALKFUN location tool, which found “no roaming in the US.” This example shows that data was collected before the device was targeted.

TAPERLAY is NSA tool for looking up registered location of mobile device-the provider and country where phone was originally located.
CHALKFUN is NSA tool to search FASCIA vast database of device location information, to find past or currect location of mobile phone.

nsa-taperlay-chalkfun

 

This is an excerpt from a transcript of National Security Agency training videos that describe how to verify the location of a targeted device. It explains how the NSA monitors different types of mobile signaling information known as HLR and VLR registrations in order to locate individuals. It also makes clear that the agency is able to use location tracking to ascertain whether a target is in the United States.

nsa-verify-target-location

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nsa-cotraveler-infographic

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