New documents released by Edward Snowden reveal that the National Security Agency gathers nearly 5 billion records of cell-phone locations worldwide a day, the Washington Post reports. Records of these locations help the NSA track movements of individuals as they travel through different cell-phone tower coverage areas.
While the top-secret documents released say that the NSA does not purposefully track Americans, it knows the locations of Americans’ cell phones “incidentally.” Data is collected from both U.S. and foreign cell phones, often from American citizens who travel internationally.
The NSA uses the information to retrace the movements of those who interact with identified intelligence targets, and thus reveal relationships and meetings otherwise overlooked or unknown. Phones transmit location data even when not being actively used, meaning the only way one can avoid potential government snooping is to disconnect from cell phones entirely.
Since the NSA does not know what relationships and contacts will be needed in the future, it has collected an estimated 27 terabytes of data, so much that the NSA cannot process the data as fast as it is receiving it.
NSA officials have not calculated exactly how many Americans are being tracked via their cell phones, though one intelligence lawyer stressed that collection methods are “tuned to be looking outside the United States.”
The Washington Post also released a graphic to make clear how exactly people are tracked via their cell phones: