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Government admits to spying through your cell phone

Published time: July 27, 2011 16:45
Edited time: July 27, 2011 21:05
The government can take data from your phones to see where you are.

The government can take data from your phones to see where you are.

The US government is in a relationship with your cell phone provider, but “it’s complicated.”

When the general counsel of the National Security Agency was asked if the government was tracking citizens using data collected by their cell phones, the NSA’s Matthew Olsen said it does indeed have that authority but stopped there, saying that “it is a very complicated question.”

Perhaps “yes” or “no” is a bit too much to spit out for the NSA.

Olsen has been nominated to lead the National Counterterrorism Center and answered the question posed by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore) this week. Specifically, the lawmaker asked if the government can “use cell site data to track the location of Americans inside the country.”

“There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist,” responded Olsen. He added that a proper response was a bit too hefty of a task and that the intelligence community is putting together a memo that will outline exactly what they can do. Olsen, however, wasn’t exactly clear who the “intelligence community” is or what it is they do. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has asked to have that memo in time for the first hearing of the National Counterterrorism Center, scheduled for later this year.

In April, researchers announced that mobile phones were storing locations and timestamps inside devices unbeknownst to the user. Apple, maker of the popular iPhone, confirmed that the devices do indeed collect data but said that they weren’t doing anything with it. “Apple must be able to determine quickly and precisely where a device is located,” the computer company responded. “To do this, Apple maintains a secure database containing information regarding known locations of cell towers and Wi-Fi access points.”

Speaking out against the possibility of government surveillance being allowed through the Patriot Act, in May Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo) told The New York Times, “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out.”

This week’s discussion took place at the confirmation hearing for Olsen, who was President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the Center. Olsen faced other scrutiny on Tuesday as he defended himself before a Senate panel against allegations that he misled a congressman about plans to have Guantanamo Bay detainees resettled into Northern Virginia.

Later this year, the Supreme Court will be posed with another issue of surveillance — whether or not police will be able to affix GPS devices to the cars or criminal suspects without first obtaining a warrant.