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Expanding NSA facilities included an underground cellphone tracking team

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In a new report about the rapid expansion of the US National Security Agency, The Washington Post details a cellphone location tracking program whose existence the agency initially seemed to deny following disclosures from whistleblower Edward Snowden. As part of the agency's considerable post-9/11 growth, the NSA assembled a team in the basement of its headquarters in Fort Meade whose purpose is to track the locations of cellphones in real time, The Post reports.

"We track 'em, you whack 'em."

The team, called the Geolocation Cell or "Geo Cell," was reportedly created to play a support role for US military operations, allowing pilots to use a target's cellphone as a homing beacon for drone strikes. Embedding with CIA agents and the elite operators of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the NSA group perfected a technique in 2004 which JSOC nicknamed "The Find," reportedly adding thousands of people to the target list by allowing the agency to locate cellphones even when they were switched off. The unit's motto became "We track 'em, you whack 'em."

Following the leak of a secret court order which revealed that Verizon hands over all of its customers' phone records and metadata, a Florida man had attempted to obtain his own location records from the NSA in order to prove his innocence in a criminal case. A carefully-worded response from the agency said that the program does not collect location data, claiming that "the program described in the classified [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court] order cited by the defense did not acquire such data." But experts were quick to note that the statement also didn't deny the agency had such capabilities under a separate program.