The National Security Agency ran tests using mobile-phone data to track Americans’ movements until determining the information lacked intelligence value, the agency’s director said.
The NSA tested samples of bulk location information on U.S. mobile phones in 2010 and 2011 to see whether the data format could be used in its computer systems, General Keith Alexander told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing in Washington today.
It was the first time the agency has discussed using mobile-phone data to track Americans’ locations. The data wasn’t used in actual surveillance operations, Alexander said, and he didn’t provide details.
“It was test data, and what we couldn’t find was operational value out of it given that we could just turn that over to the FBI, and they could do the cell-site location if they needed it with a warrant,” Alexander said in an interview after the hearing.
Alexander said the NSA would notify Congress before location data is collected in the future. He appeared before lawmakers who may curb the NSA’s powers in response to recent revelations that some of its spying activity violated Americans’ privacy rights.
The NSA collects bulk phone records on millions of Americans, such as call durations and numbers dialed, from U.S. telecommunications companies under a program exposed in June by former government contractor Edward Snowden, who remains in Russia under temporary asylum.
Senators were divided over the value of the bulk records during the hearing.
“The government has not made its case that bulk collection of domestic phone records is an effective counterterrorism tool, especially in light of the intrusion on Americans’ privacy,” said Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Alexander, under questioning by Leahy, said the program has helped stop only one or two terrorist plots inside the U.S. since it was begun in 2006.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper offered a new rationale for the program during the hearing, saying it can be used to provide “peace of mind” that there aren’t terrorist plots in the works.
Leahy has introduced a measure that would stop bulk collection and instead allow the NSA to obtain phone records for individuals under investigation.
Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said they will oppose efforts to stop the bulk collection because it’s part of the government’s arsenal to find and stop terrorist plots.
“To destroy it is to make this nation more vulnerable,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein is writing legislation that would preserve the program. A committee meeting scheduled for Oct. 4 to draft the measure has been postponed due to the U.S. government’s partial shutdown.
The NSA isn’t compiling profiles of innocent Americans using their social connections, Alexander said.
He disputed a characterization in a Sept. 28 New York Times story that the agency is building graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information. The story relied in part on documents leaked by Snowden.
“We aren’t doing that,” Alexander said. “The insinuation that we’re doing that is flat out wrong.”
The NSA builds profiles of Americans who are subjects of investigations related to suspected foreign terrorist activity, Alexander said.