cell towers

When Edward Snowden leaked details of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance operations earlier this month, he painted a picture of broad program wherein even the most low-ranking analysts had broad access to the personal information of millions of Americans.

“If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards,” he told The Guardian last week.

Unsurprisingly, it’s those claims of broad, indirect surveillance that national security officials are trying their hardest to push back against. In a statement released this weekend, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that the NSA’s cell-phone spying program is not only limited in scope but also tightly controlled, and it comes with sufficient judicial oversight, as The Wall Street Journal reports.

Core to these denials is so-called “geolocational data,” which can tell law enforcement when and where calls are made. While the NSA says it’s both authorized and has the ability to collect location data, it chooses not to because the intelligence gains to the data aren’t high enough to justify the cost of collecting and analyzing them.

While it’s understandable why the NSA wouldn’t be able to collect and store all available information, it’s telling — and a tad concerning — that its reasons against doing so are fiscal, not ethical ones. Essentially, what the NSA is saying is that if the return-on-investment was high enough, it would have little problem with storing as much location data as possible (assuming it had sufficient legal authority to do so, anyway).

Again, all of this is done to prevent terrorist attacks, as the NSA has repeatedly pointed out. In fact, according to the NSA, the surveillance has had a hand in stopping “dozens” of terrorist plots in the U.S. and over 20 countries around the world.