U.S. spy agency tested tracking cell phone locations

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Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (C) speaks to the media after attending a closed meeting for members of Congress on the situation in Syria at the U.S. Capitol in Washington September 1, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The U.S. National Security Agency has tested its ability to collect Americans’ cellular telephone location data but does not have a program to collect that information, the NSA’s director, General Keith Alexander, said on Wednesday.

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Alexander told a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on the government’s electronic eavesdropping that the NSA received data samples in 2010 and 2011 to test its ability to handle such information, but the data were never used for any other purposes.

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“This may be something that is a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now,” he said.

U.S. intelligence agencies’ extensive collection of telephone and Internet data has been subject to scrutiny since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began leaking information in June showing that surveillance was far more extensive than most Americans had realized.

Facing a public outcry, Republican and Democratic members of Congress are writing legislation to clamp down on the data collection and increase public access to information about it.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary panel’s chairman, said at the hearing he is working on a bill that would tighten oversight of the government surveillance programs.

Among other things, Leahy’s program would end bulk data collection under Section 215 of the 2001 USA Patriot Act, which requires companies to turn over business records if a government request for them is approved by a secret intelligence court.

“I find the legal justification for this bulk collection to be strained at best, and the classified list of cases involving Section 215 to be unconvincing,” Leahy said.

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