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NSA tracks billions of intl cell phones daily – on Reagan's orders

Published time: December 07, 2013 11:47
Edited time: December 08, 2013 05:20
Reuters / Mike Blake

Reuters / Mike Blake

The National Security Agency has publicly admitted to tracking the locations of literally billions of international cell phones under a 1981 executive order. To allay the fears of US citizens, it said the program only targets international phones.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first leaked the information that such a practice happens up to 5 billion times each day, and functions by scooping up streams of data from fiber-optic cables, The Washington Post reported.

Explaining why this is perfectly legal in American eyes, the spy agency’s spokeswoman, Vanee Vines, referred in a statement to Executive Order 12333, which dates back to President Ronald Reagan and governs the country’s entire foreign espionage program.

The initiative does not violate the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which outlines a fraction of the agency’s powers. Instead, the tracking is overseen by various congressional committees – not the FISA court.

Oftentimes, President Barack Obama and the US intelligence community would justify foreign snooping on the premise that it is overseen by all three branches of the US government – the executive, legislative and judicial. But the catch is that any legal changes made to foreign spy programs under the FISA would most likely not affect the existing executive order in any way.

“It is not ubiquitous,” Vines said Friday in defense of accusations that Americans are also being targeted. “The Agency's EO 12333 collection is outward-facing. We are not intentionally acquiring domestic information through this capability.”

Recent revelations about the NSA shed light on a very far-reaching spying and wiretapping program that encompasses all manner of communications – foreign and domestic, civilian and world leaders. This included call logs, phone numbers, time and date and location.

However, Vines said that the NSA "does not know and cannot track the location of every cell phone," underling also the importance of such activities in that they have been “used in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including war zones, where terrorists are actively planning to do harm to the nation."

Reuters / Mohammed Azakir

Catherine Crump, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, explained that “the NSA claims its collection is incidental, but there is no question it’s deliberately engaging in the mass collection of cell phone location data that it knows will inevitably sweep up information on a huge number of innocent Americans. And, all of this is happening without any supervision by a court," she said, as cited by the AP, in reference to the complete lack of oversight by a specialized panel of federal judges.

She painted a bittersweet picture. "Unfortunately, this program is just one of many in which the NSA monitors countless innocent individuals to identify the tiny fraction who may be of interest. Fortunately these programs are now being brought into the light, and it’s time for Congress and the courts to exercise meaningful oversight of our intelligence agencies.”

Additionally, “FISA authorization would be required for the intentional collection of domestic metadata,” Crump said, reiterating that the program targets everyone else.