According to a report by the New York Times, the NSA tested a system to collect location data from American cellphones in bulk back in 2010 and 2011, before ultimately tabling any plans to roll it out. For now, anyway.
Information about the project was declassified by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, but it hasn't been made public quite yet. The Times managed to get ahold of the draft answer that Clapper would give, though, if asked about the project during a Senate Judiciary Committee today. It reads, in part, like this:
In 2010 and 2011 N.S.A. received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format, but that data was not used for any other purpose and was never available for intelligence analysis purposes.
Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act—the same piece of law that lets the NSA scoop up other phone metadata—this is completely kosher, but the NSA maintains that it's not currently doing it, and would notify Congress before it started.
An official who spoke with the Times confirmed the NSA's claims, saying the original test was just to see how that data would "flow into the N.S.A.'s systems" but was never queried for any investigations. You know, just to see what that information high would feel like, and how bad the hangover would be.
The carefully constructed answer leaves a few things unclear though, like whether the NSA has ever collected cellphone location data under a different legal authority, or whether the NSA used to do it (under a different authority) and then stopped.
Just rest assured the NSA knows full well how to start tracking huge clusters of America by phone if it wants to. It just doesn't feel like it right now. Or at least, it doesn't feel like talking about it. [The New York Times]