MYSTERY WIRE — Governments and companies around the world have started using mobile phone data to keep track of patients infected with the coronavirus. The idea of warrantless surveillance of personal cell phones shouldn’t surprise Americans.
The NSA has a massive data center where it has been storing this information for longer than you might think.
During this current pandemic, journalists around the world have been reporting about governments and corporations conducting surreptitious surveillance on a massive scale, including here in the United States. But a version of it is also happening here in the United States. The Washington Post recently wrote, “A company called Unacast that collects and analyzes phone GPS location data launched a “Social Distancing Scoreboard” that grades, county by county, which residents are changing behavior at the urging of health officials. It uses the reduction in the total distance we travel as a rough index for whether we’re staying put at home.”
The Washington Post also reports Google and Facebook collect location data, but not that those companies are using it or sharing it with the government for virus tracking. At least not yet. In South Korea, the government did use an app to find people violating a stay at home order. If the person using the app left their house, the app would notify authorities.
The Seattle Times also reported on the U.S. government’s efforts to work with these tech giants. The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.
One of the nation’s leading financial magazines also recently published an article titled, “Coronavirus Spy Apps: Israel Joins Iran And China Tracking Citizens’ Smartphones To Fight COVID-19“ In it, Forbes reports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “All means will be used to fight the spread of the coronavirus including technological means, digital means, and other means that until today I have refrained from using among the civilian population.”
China is believed to be where the recent COVID-19 coronavirus began. According to the New York Times, China’s government began a mass experiment in using data to regulate citizens’ lives — by requiring them to use software on their smartphones that dictates whether they should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces.
But when the New York Times analyzed the software’s code, it found the system does more than decide in real time whether someone poses a contagion risk. It also appears to share information with the police, setting a template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides.
Mobile phone carriers have shared data with the government in the past. ProPublica reports, As they note in their privacy policies, Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile all analyze your information to send you targeted ads for their own services or from outside companies. At least tens of thousands of times a year, they also hand cell phone location information to the FBI or police officers who have a court order.
Former NSA analyst William Binney, whose warnings about domestic surveillance programs initially fell on deaf ears, says the sheer size of the facility the NSA has built in Bluffdale, Utah for data storage needs to be given a closer look. Binney claims the NSA is lying when it says it will only collect metadata, big picture stuff. When in reality, according to Binney, Bluffdale could house every single communication in the world for 500 years.
By Binney’s calculations, the Bluffdale computers will be able to digest the equivalent of the Library of Congress every minute. What’s more, he says Bluffdale is one of at least six similar NSA facilities.
Rumors and stories about the NSA using mobile data have circulated for some time. In 2014, the website theintercept.com reported, According to documents contained in the archive of material provided to The Intercept by whistle blower Edward Snowden, the NSA has spied on hundreds of companies and organizations internationally, including in countries closely allied to the United States, in an effort to find security weaknesses in cellphone technology that it can exploit for surveillance. The documents also reveal how the NSA plans to secretly introduce new flaws into communication systems so that they can be tapped into—a controversial tactic that security experts say could be exposing the general population to criminal hackers. Codenamed AURORAGOLD, the covert operation has monitored the content of messages sent and received by more than 1,200 email accounts associated with major cell phone network operators, intercepting confidential company planning papers that help the NSA hack into phone networks.
Former Nevada senator Dean Heller, one of the few lawmakers who voted against the Patriot Act, says he and other members of Congress are well aware of the vast expansion of the NSA capabilities. Heller co-sponsored legislation to open up the FISA court. In an earlier interview, Heller told us, “The only way you can solve this problem is it has to be public. I think you have to open up these courts and know specifically what their decisions are.”
If you are interested, the ACLU has published an interactive map of the United States you can click to find out cell phone location tracking laws in your state.