The head of the National Security Agency said Wednesday that the NSA has no need to track the location data of Americans’ mobile devices. Yet.
“This may be something that is a future requirement for the country,” NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander told the Senate judiciary committee Wednesday. “It is not right now because when we identify a number we can give it to the FBI and they get their probable cause, and they get the data that they need.”
Alexander was responding to a question from Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who asked if the NSA believed that it needed to collect GPS data from Americans’ mobile devices in order to protect the country from terrorism. Alexander said that the agency had tested in 2010 and 2011 whether its system could do so. This is the first time the NSA has admitted to being interested in tracking cell phone location data. Last week, Alexander avoided directly answering a query from Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden about whether or not the NSA had collected (or had developed a plan for collecting) domestic geolocation data from mobile devices. Data sent to and from a mobile device can be used to track the location of its user.
American courts currently disagree whether the law requires authorities to get a warrant for mobile location data, an issue that will likely have to be settled by the Supreme Court. The law on the issue is conflicted–records held by a third party, like your cell phone company, are not given the same privacy considerations as those in an individuals’ possession. Some courts have found that mobile device location data are like any other business record sought by the government. Other courts have taken the view that people don’t buy cell phones with the belief that they are also purchasing government tracking devices.
If the NSA ever did seek mobile device location data, Alexander said Wednesday, it would be obligated to inform Congress and seek permission from the secret foreign intelligence surveillance court. Since such decisions are made in secret, the public wouldn’t necessarily know whether such a request was approved or not.