WASHINGTON – The National Security Agency collected samples of records showing where Americans were when they made mobile phone calls in 2010 and 2011 to test how it could obtain and process the data in bulk but decided not to move forward with the plan, intelligence officials disclosed Wednesday.
The admission by NSA chief Keith Alexander to a Senate committee solved part of a mystery about the digital spying agency’s involvement with data that could reveal the day-to-day movements of – and deeply personal information about – every cellphone user.
Spurred by leaks from former contractor Edward J. Snowden, the NSA has admitted it collects in bulk the “to and from” calling records of Americans, but has denied collecting the location information that attaches to each mobile phone call. It is now clear the agency considered doing that.
The test-run data was “never available for intelligence analysis purposes,” Alexander said, and in June, the NSA promised to notify Congress before any further location data was collected.
“I would just say that this may be something that is a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now,” Alexander said. The FBI can get location data on suspects through court-approved, case-specific warrants, he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who receives classified briefings as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had been pressing the NSA to acknowledge its flirtation with bulk collection of U.S. location data. He said in a statement there was more to the story but did not elaborate.
“After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law-abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret – even when the truth would not compromise national security,” Wyden said.
In the United States, mobile phone location information is commonly used in criminal investigations and civil lawsuits after being obtained through search warrants or other legal demands. It is also sold in bulk – with no user names attached – by mobile phone companies to other companies that mine the data for marketing purposes.
Privacy activists fear that bulk collection of the data could subject people to invasion of privacy by disclosing political gatherings, illicit affairs, trips to therapists and other personal information.
The NSA already vacuums up as much mobile phone location data on foreign targets outside the United States as it can get, former officials say.
Alexander also denied a New York Times report published Saturday that said NSA searched social networks of Americans searching for foreign terror connections, and he detailed 12 previously revealed cases of abuse by NSA employees who used the network for unsanctioned missions like spying on a spouse.
He said all employees were caught and most were disciplined.
The news of the NSA’s location data test emerged at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on agency surveillance as the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, offered a new rationale for the agency’s controversial collection of U.S. calling records in bulk.
Intelligence officials have publicly identified only a single terrorism financing case in the United States that was cracked because of that program, and a second case in which it played a central role.
Clapper said that determining “plots foiled” was not the only way to measure the usefulness of the domestic phone database.
The records also allow analysts to rule out domestic conspiracies, he said.
“I would call it the ‘peace of mind’ metric,” he said. He said that after April’s Boston Marathon bombings, officials used the database “to check out whether there was or was not a subsequent plot involving New York City.”
No co-conspirators were found.
And this summer, when a threat from al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate forced the closure of diplomatic facilities across the Middle East, Clapper said, analysts were able to run terrorist phone numbers against American records, and take comfort in the fact that no connection turned up.
As for the incidents when NSA analysts abused their spying powers, Alexander told senators none of them involved the programs that collect American telephone records or email data.
“Nine of those were abroad,” he said. “Three were (in the U.S.) but involved persons abroad on two of those. And one was on a spouse or girlfriend.”
The NSA’s inspector general detailed the violation in a letter to Congress that was released last week. Several cases clearly showed government officials using the surveillance system to probe for information about spouses or partners.
In one case, an internal investigation found that the official had made internal surveillance queries on the phones of nine foreign women, including his girlfriend, without authorization and had at times listened in on some phone conversations.
The same official also collected data on a U.S. person’s phone.
Alexander said all had been disciplined, and had retired, resigned or been reprimanded, except for one where there wasn’t enough evidence to prove wrongdoing.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.