As reports continue to surface about the National Security Agency abusing its powers to spy on the American people, it should come as no surprise that the organization is able and willing to track mobile phone data from civilian devices. The NSA has received tons of flack in recent months, but the latest revelation is particularly alarming: The Washington Post discovered that the NSA collects up to 5 billion records each day on the location of mobile phones.
The NSA receives its data from cellular towers around the world as mobile phones send their signals back and forth. The Washington Post explained that mobile phone tracking data “are not covered by the Fourth Amendment”, which means the NSA doesn’t need rhyme or reason to access it. These facts were among the secrets divulged by Edward Snowden’s leaked documents.
If it seems strange to you that locational phone tracking falls within the NSA’s legal bounds, you’re not alone. In fact, there is very little case law to refer to in this situation. The issue is quite convoluted, as various courts offer differing rulings on whether an agency like the NSA would need to obtain warrants before collecting the mobile location data.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that probable-cause warrants are required for tracking vehicles of potential criminals, meaning you can’t attached a covert GPS apparatus to a vehicle without consent from a judge. But when it comes to mobile phones? It seems warrants are not important.
Part of the issue is that the U.S. Supreme Court has never properly addressed the concept of using mobile-phone location data to track an individual, and it’s unlikely that they will take up the issue anytime soon.