The U.S. is collecting nearly 5 billion records a day on the location of cellphones around the world to feed a large database of the location of "at least hundreds of millions of devices," according to a newspaper report.
Although the program does not target Americans' location data by design, the National Security Agency collects "incidentally" a substantial amount of information on the location of domestic cellphones, according to a report Wednesday in The Washington Post, which cited documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials.
The revelation tops other disclosures by Snowden through news reports, including claims that the NSA has access to phone records of U.S. citizens and the ability to access content on the servers of Internet companies in real time, and also taps into communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world.
The U.S. government has admitted to some of the programs, including the bulk collection of phone metadata. It has said that its analysis tools require the collection of data in bulk.
The Washington Post quoted a senior collection manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, who said the NSA was getting vast volumes of location data by tapping into cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones, and from data often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.
"It is staggering that a location-tracking program on this scale could be implemented without any public debate, particularly given the substantial number of Americans having their movements recorded by the government," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, in a statement.
The location data can reveal a lot on people's political, professional, and intimate relationships, and flouts international obligations to respect the privacy of foreigners and Americans alike, Crump added.
The New York Times reported in October that the NSA conducted a secret pilot project in 2010 and 2011 to test the gathering of bulk data on the location of Americans' cellphones, but intelligence officials said the agency had not gone ahead with the program.
The surveillance by the NSA has drawn criticism from lawmakers and civil rights groups both in the U.S. and abroad. A United Nation's panel last month noted in a draft resolution that new technologies that increase the ability for surveillance, interception and data collection by governments, companies and individuals "may violate or abuse human rights, in particular the right to privacy."
The mainly symbolic resolution, approved without a vote, was co-sponsored by Brazil and Germany, both countries whose leaders were reportedly spied on by the NSA. The resolution would have the U.N. General Assembly call upon its members to review their surveillance procedures, practices and legislation to protect privacy.