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NSA tracks cellphone location data under 1981 executive order

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Prism Assets
Prism Assets

The NSA collects mobile location data under an executive order issued by the Reagan White House in 1981, reports The Hill. The news follows The Washington Post's report revealing how the agency tracks the locations of hundreds of millions of citizens around the world, supported by documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

"We cannot track the location of every cell phone"

The security agency told The Hill that it operates under Executive Order 12333, which governs how the intelligence community conducts its surveillance activities abroad, while also asserting that the collection does not violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. An NSA spokesperson stated that the data tracking is "outward-facing," reiterating the previous claim made in the Post that data gathered by the NSA program is "incidental" as opposed to intentional. "We are not intentionally acquiring domestic information through this capability," she said. In addition, while the agency tries to avoid American location data, if any records are acquired from a stateside mobile device, analysts employ "minimization procedures" or destroy the records outright. However, the spokesperson said that the agency "does not know or cannot track the location of every cell phone."

This is not the first time the NSA has argued that it operates within the confines of the law. A previous statement issued on October 31st also stated that its collection practices fall under Executive Order 12333, and are in accordance with all applicable laws, regulations, and policies. However, that a 32-year-old executive order with the force of law should help govern how the NSA operates might also help galvanize its most ardent critics.

Update: ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump issued this statement regarding the NSA's data collection practices:

"The NSA claims its collection is incidental, but there is no question it’s deliberately engaging in the mass collection of cell phone location data that it knows will inevitably sweep up information on a huge number of innocent Americans. And, all of this is happening without any supervision by a court. Unfortunately, this program is just one of many in which the NSA monitors countless innocent individuals to identify the tiny fraction who may be of interest. Fortunately these programs are now being brought into the light, and it’s time for Congress and the courts to exercise meaningful oversight of our intelligence agencies."