July 26, 2011, 12:43 PM — There's no need to panic, or start shopping for aluminum-foil headwear, but the super-secret National Security Agency has apparently been thinking frequently enough about whether the NSA is allowed to intercept location data from cell phones to track U.S. citizens that the agency's chief lawyer was able to speak intelligently about it off the cuff while interviewing for a different job.
"There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist," even if the NSA has no warrant to investigate a the person whose privacy it is invading or global permission to eavesdrop on everyone, according to Matthew Olsen, the NSA's general counsel.
He didn't come to talk about that particularly; he said it yesterday in response to a question from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which was considering whether he'd be a good choice to run the National Counterterrorism Center.
The question of whether it's legal is "very complicated," Olsen said, implying nothing is going on along those lines right now.
It might get simpler under limitations in a bill proposed by Al Franken, (D., Minn.) to require that companies get permission from consumers before collecting or using mobile-phone data on their locations.
So far, though, no law. So the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies are working on a memo trying to answer the question in response to queries from Reps. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Mark Udall (D., Colo.).
Earlier this month the two sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking if the NSA and CIA "have the authority to collect the geolocation information of American Citizens for intelligence purposes."
Both the CIA and NSA operate under restrictions that forbid them to spy, under most cirumstances, on U.S. citizens within the boundaries of the United States (that's the FBI's job).
Between that and the pesky old Fourth Amendment rules against illegal search and seizure, the obvious answer would be 'No.'
On the other hand, if our cell phone carriers, phone manufacturers, mobile apps developers, children, parents, Facebook Friends, Twitter followers, ex-spouses, stalkers and assorted fraudsters, hackers, identity thieves can all get access, why not invite spies to the party, too.
Maybe with help from all the informal surveillors they could get enough of their information straight to make accurate political-situation projection analyses, for once.