Feeds

NSA: Yes we 'experimented' with US mobile tracking. But we didn't inhale

Huh - Euro snoop systems are on constantly

Using blade systems to cut costs and sharpen efficiencies

Analysis The US National Security Agency has recently admitted to experimenting with bulk collection of mobile phone locations, but denied it ever actually used the information.

This is unlike its European contemporaries, which apparently devolved the task of collecting mobile phone data to the network operators years ago.

The NSA project was an unsuccessful pilot, according to the spooks' Director of Intelligence, James R Clapper. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee about the experiment on Wednesday, but denied there was any ongoing analysis of the data the NSA covertly slurped, as the New York Times explains.

But in Europe, network operators are obliged to keep the very same data, just in case law enforcement fancies a look at it.

Back in 2009, a German politician requested access to his location data from T-Mobile. Following various legal challenges the operator eventually complied and the newspaper Die Zeit put it together into an animated map which shows just what the European authorities can do, if they're minded to.

The difference – and it's an important one – is the presence of judicial oversight. An agency wanting access to European phone records, which are kept for at least a year, has to apply through the nominated Single Point of Contact (SPOC) which is actually a significant, if whispered, department within every police force and network operator, ready to supply thousands of requests for data every week.

Requests have to be proportional to the crime being investigated and are generally restricted to "was this phone in this location at this time" but can vary. A suspicious death connected to the owner of a particular phone may warrant the authorities slurping its location data for the last 24 hours, while an abducted child might warrant an urgent check for current information.

One of the key deterrents against agents of the state engaging in fishing expeditions is the price charged by mobile operators for access to the data they hold. Naturally, speedy access to data and access to large swathes of it tends to attract higher fees.

Exactly how much they charge, they won't say. Operators are only supposed to cover their costs. The fact that a budget is needed for every enquiry helps prevent the more obvious checking up on lovers, and the like which the NSA has admitted occurs in its network.

Most of us trust the police, and most Americans (just about) trust their government, but we might not trust the individuals who comprisethese bodies. Perusing the Facebook page of an old partner is almost irresistible. Imagine how much more seductive it would be if one could overhear their phone calls too. Such a system needs robust oversight to prevent humans succumbing to their natural tendencies.

The problem here isn't that the NSA was tracking phones, or that it requested data from internet companies; the problem was that it did so in the shadows.

Here in Europe we're doing much the same thing, on a bigger scale and with more success. It's hard to count foiled terrorist plots, but the same rules solve numerous crimes every day. Most of us don’t want to hide our location from the police or the secret services – but we might want to hide from the humans who make up those forces. ®

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

More from The Register

next story
Yorkshire cops fail to grasp principle behind BT Fon Wi-Fi network
'Prevent people that are passing by to hook up to your network', pleads plod
HIDDEN packet sniffer spy tech in MILLIONS of iPhones, iPads – expert
Don't panic though – Apple's backdoor is not wide open to all, guru tells us
NEW, SINISTER web tracking tech fingerprints your computer by making it draw
Have you been on YouPorn lately, perhaps? White House website?
LibreSSL RNG bug fix: What's all the forking fuss about, ask devs
Blow to bit-spitter 'tis but a flesh wound, claim team
Black Hat anti-Tor talk smashed by lawyers' wrecking ball
Unmasking hidden users is too hot for Carnegie-Mellon
Manic malware Mayhem spreads through Linux, FreeBSD web servers
And how Google could cripple infection rate in a second
Don't look, Snowden: Security biz chases Tails with zero-day flaws alert
Exodus vows not to sell secrets of whistleblower's favorite OS
Own a Cisco modem or wireless gateway? It might be owned by someone else, too
Remote code exec in HTTP server hands kit to bad guys
prev story

Whitepapers

Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.