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NSA locates cell phones even when switched off – report

Published time: July 22, 2013 20:33
Edited time: July 24, 2013 07:57
Reuters / Lucas Jackson

Reuters / Lucas Jackson

Never mind the non-stop collection of metadata and other sneaky surveillance tools being implemented by the US: a new report has revealed the National Security Agency’s spy powers allow the government to grab location data on just about anyone.

The technology was allegedly developed by the NSA in 2004 as part of the agency’s cooperation with the military, the CIA and the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). By the time NSA analysts and data collectors have been helping them for three years to track down and kill “high value targets” among terrorist and militant groups in Afghanistan and later Iraq, according to a Washington Post report.

The newspaper provides few further details on the technology, only saying that JSOC troops called it “The Find” and that it gave them thousands of new targets to track and attack. The article further describes how post-September 2001 the NSA made “a gigantic leap from using the nation’s most sophisticated spy technology to record the words of presidents, kings and dictators to using it to kill a single man in a terrorist group.”

The fact that a mobile phone doubles as a tracking device, which identifies the owner’s location in real time through a mobile network’s communication with the device, through spy software operating on the phone, or by some other means, is hardly secret. But it is widely considered that a phone that is turned off cannot emit signals and is thus untraceable.

Some privacy-cautious people suggest removing a battery as an extra precaution. More hardline privacy activists, like software freedom activist and founder of the Free Software Foundation Richard Stallman, don’t use cellphones at all, saying that they can be not only used for tracking, but also converted remotely into listening devices with specific spyware.

The NSA is currently the focus of much criticism after former contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents revealing that the agency is involved in massive worldwide collection of personal data. The agency is accused of trawling phone communications, emails, financial transactions and other records concerning hundreds of millions of people who are not suspected of any crimes or considered a threat to any country’s national security. Critics call it a gross violation of privacy.

The targeted killings of militants by US military and the CIA is another controversial practice of the Bush and the Obama administrations. It expanded greatly with the wide introduction of drone aircraft, which made such killings more affordable. Critics question it on many accounts, from dubious legal grounds to murky process for selection of targets to civilian casualties and public outcries that such killings prompt.

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