Is there any way to stop Big Brother? The National Security Agency (NSA) tracks the locations of hundreds of millions of cellphones every day, according to a report from the Washington Post. Americans traveling abroad are among those tracked via a program called CO-TRAVELER.
From the Washington Post:
One senior collection manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said “we are getting vast volumes” of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data are often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.
What's an average person with a cellphone and a desire for a small measure of privacy to do? Can steps be taken to keep the NSA from keeping tabs on the location of a person's cellphone? Yahoo News tapped several experts in the field of cyber security to help answer the question.
The short answer, according to Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is no. In an email, Schoen explained that people can take steps to prevent their conversations from being tapped by using apps such as TextSecure, ChatSecure or RedPhone. But "there's absolutely nothing that an individual can do to stop their location from being tracked if they carry a cell phone."
Why? Blame the way cellphone networks are designed.
"Location tracking is built into the fundamental design of the cell phone network. This is a major problem with cell phones, but it's true: With existing technology there's no way to hide where a particular phone is from the phone carriers, at any time."
Schoen explains that designers of cellphone systems never viewed "hiding users' locations as a design goal, even though in retrospect it's obviously very, very important for privacy."
Schoen said his organization "can imagine a global communications system that doesn't allow tracking users, but unfortunately the cell phone network isn't it."
Paul Judge, chief research officer at Barracuda Networks, an Internet security firm, told Yahoo News by email that if a person has a cellphone registered in his or her name, then the carrier knows the person's location at all times. "If your carrier knows, then a government agency can find out. Turning off GPS only provides a basic level of abstraction. Your carrier still has to know your approximate location to deliver your calls."
Anything you can do? "If you do not want anyone to know who you are, then you should buy a prepaid phone with cash," Judge says. "Trying to hide your location from a cell phone network is like wanting the mailman to deliver your mail without knowing where you live -- not possible."
If, like most people, you assume that a government agency has access to the same information as your cellphone network, "then the only way to not be tracked by your cell phone is for your cell phone to not be attached to your name," Judge told Yahoo News.
But even then there are problems. "If that phone is left turned on at your home every night then that becomes a way to track you as well," Judge says. "Also if you use that phone to call all of your same friends that have phones in their names, then that is also a way to track someone."
The BBC wrote that the NSA's "analysis is so detailed that it can be used to thwart attempts to hide from scrutiny by people who use disposable phones or only use a handset briefly before switching it off."
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement condemning the tracking program.
“The dragnet surveillance of hundreds of millions of cell phones flouts our international obligation to respect the privacy of foreigners and Americans alike. The government should be targeting its surveillance at those suspected of wrongdoing, not assembling massive associational databases that by their very nature record the movements of a huge number of innocent people.”