from the of-course-it-does dept

Mike Masnick
Tech Dirt
October 29, 2013

James Clapper has declassified another batch of documents on the NSA activities. We’ll probably write about a few of them, but let’s start with one that’s getting a lot of initial attention: the document that discusses the “test” of collecting location info from the telcos based on where your mobile phone was. The short version? Do you know where you were on April 26, 2010? Because the NSA probably does. It had already been revealed that the NSA had run “a test” of obtaining location info from the telcos. This document, which is a memo from the NSA to the Senate Intelligence Committee is just explaining some of the details, with this being the key one:

In regards to the mobility testing effort, NSA consulted with DOJ before implementing this testing effort. Based upon our description of the proposed mobility data (cell site location information) testing plans, DOJ advised in February 2010 that obtaining the data for the described testing purposes was permissable based upon the current language of the Court’s BR FISA order requiring the production of ‘all call detail records.’ It is our understanding that DOJ also orally advised the FISC, via its staff, that we had obtained a limited set of test data sampling of cellular mobility data (cell site location information) pursuant to the Court-authorized program and that we were exploring the possibility of acquiring such mobility under the BR FISA program in the near future based upon the authority currently granted by the Court.

The key takeaway here: the NSA believes that the current FISA approval of dragnet collection of metadata on every phone call includes permission to track location data as well, even though it doesn’t currently do so. The “BR FISA order” means “business records” which is what Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act is sometimes called. The fact that the NSA didn’t seem to think it was necessary to check with the FISA Court before running this test, just to make sure it was actually allowed is rather telling.

Separately, can anyone explain why the redacted portions of this document are redacted? It makes no sense. They redact the number of location records that were obtained. I can’t see how that number could possibly need to remain classified once the existence of such a test was declassified. The only reason I can think of to keep that classified is to avoid embarrassment over the large number of people whose location info was scooped up. Similarly, they redact the name of the lawyer who wrote the memo. Again, the only reason I can think to do this is to protect him from embarrassment and public mocking. Such a public mocking might seem unfair, but I don’t see how it fits in with a reasonable classification category.

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