This Memo From The Future Shows How A Surveillance State Will Use Your Phone Against You

How closely is the NSA tracking us? No one is quite sure what the limits are, and this speculative police document from the future spells out what could be possible.

This Memo From The Future Shows How A Surveillance State Will Use Your Phone Against You
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Our cell phones are also our trackers. We know this.


We know that law enforcement regularly get “tower dumps” of cell phone data, and that carriers also hand over GPS location data, website address, and sometimes even search terms. We know that the NSA has been gathering nearly five billion records a day on cell phone locations around the globe.

Yet it all remains so intangible. “If a police officer were to follow us around 24/7 most people would be unhappy and alarmed,” says ACLU policy analyst Jay Stanley. “But we now have the electronic equivalent of that on a mass scale.” To make that point, Stanley created a speculative “future memo that we fear may someday soon be uncovered.

Dear commissioner:

Now that we have finalized our systems for the acquisition and processing of Americans’ location data (using data from cell phone and license plate readers as well as other sources), I wanted to give you a quick taste of our new system’s capabilities in the domestic policing context.

The memo spells out how a specific individual Jack R. Benjamin was flagged as a DUI risk.

It imagines tracking his location at a level of specificity that may be a bit beyond what the NSA can see today, but the real power of location tracking comes in the analysis, and in the combination of an individual’s data with that of others. Jack R. Benjamin seems to spend a lot of time at another private residence.

Looks like he spends the night there regularly–must be a lover. (Notice, though, that on 2/2/13 the subject seemed to have left at 3:50 in the morning, and didn’t visit again until almost 6 weeks later – looks like a temporary breakup!) Looks like the home belongs to a woman named Mary Smith:

This analysis, while creepy, leads nowhere. Jack R. Benjamin comes under suspicion for DUI in an imagined mash-up of location data that reveals a social gathering, “often a key precursor of a DUI.”

Second, look at the attendees’ location trails, several of which involved stops at liquor stores:

Third, one of the attendees has a prior:

Finally, our live-monitoring algorithms identified a movement pattern by another attendee who already left the gathering highly suggestive of DUI.

The inferences imagine this happening on U.S. soil, and at a level of sophistication that may still be out of reach. But it looks a lot closer to reality now that the Snowden documents have revealed the “Co-Traveler” program under which the NSA tracks people from afar “to confidential business meetings or personal visits to medical facilities, hotel rooms, private homes and other traditionally protected spaces.” The agency mashes up that data ostensibly to find people whose movements make them suspicious.


In fact, Stanley uses these slides in a presentation at Widener Law in April–some eight months prior–but rushed them onto the website after “Co-Traveler” was revealed.

“I was kicking myself for not getting this out sooner,” says Stanley. “It seemed a lot less prescient after they came out.”

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.