Tracking people by their phones faces legal debate in U.S., hardware hurdles abroad
In Afghanistan, Taliban leaders have issued decrees prohibiting insurgents from carrying mobile phones to prevent them from being located by the signals emitted by their cell phones even when they are not talking on them. The same phones that insurgents use to plan attacks and detonate roadside bombs "can be used to track the culprits in real time," said Brian Varano, marketing director for TruePosition Inc., a company based in Berwyn, Pa., that offers location technologies and intelligence products.
In recent years, TruePosition and such companies as ITT and Polaris Wireless have managed to broaden the market for cell phone tracking from the battlefield in Afghanistan to the first domestic applications in the U.S. and abroad. Industry officials say the technologies can be used for border surveillance, for establishing virtual fences around secure facilities and as a common tool in criminal investigations.
These U.S.-based companies so far have found a less controversial market abroad than at home, where American laws and regulations are either antiquated or prudent, depending on one's point of view. Greater government use of the tracking technology is happening in the U.S., but not without litigation over whether a court order is required.
The software has been used in American prisons to find illicit mobile phone users, in criminal investigations and in the country's 911 emergency system to find people who call in on mobile phones.
Even in countries where laws are less strict, however, expanding the market won't be easy due to another problem. Adopting the technology can require the installation of hardware on cell towers and software into network ground stations. Much of the world lacks that equipment and software, and depending on the technology used, the installation process can take months or even years.
The U.S. has a stake in seeing international sales expand so that friendly governments are equipped to reduce crime globally, said Bob Gourley, a former chief technology officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency and editor of the blog CTOvision.com. "For this capability to help in foreign lands, we will need to ensure the ground stations there have the capability engineered in," he said by e-mail.
How it's done
Mobile device locations can be calculated one of two ways. Smart phones like Apple's iPhone and Google Android-based devices use GPS signals to fix their locations. That technique works well outside but is less likely to produce accurate location data indoors or in dense urban areas. When GPS is not working or a GPS capability has been disabled, cellular networks can calculate the position of any phone that is powered on. Even when a phone is idle, it transmits its position to nearby cell towers. Wireless carriers use that data to manage networks and sell location-based services, directing customers to the nearest caf????, for example. Intelligence and law enforcement groups use the data to track suspects and investigate crimes.
TruePosition developed a technique known as Uplink Time Difference of Arrival, which uses location measurement units installed in cell towers to measure the precise time it takes for each mobile phone signal to reach specific ground stations. By measuring the distance that a signal travels to multiple towers, TruePosition can pinpoint the location of any phone to within 50 meters. "We can do much better than that, but for public statements, we say 50 meters," Varano said.
In contrast, Polaris Wireless of Santa Clara, Calif., uses intricate maps of an area featuring roads, terrain, buildings and cell tower networks to create a geo-referenced database sophisticated enough to match the radio frequency signal traveling from a wireless phone to its location. With that approach, customers can identify the location of one phone or map every cell phone in a given area at a specific time. A law enforcement agency could, for example, find every phone in an area before, during or after a bomb blast, said Bhavin Shah, Polaris Wireless vice president for marketing and business development. "If there is any interest in the capability, and the laws of a country allow it, we offer that capability," he added.
In recent years, companies have made dramatic improvements in the technology used to find mobile phones and trace their movements, but U.S. laws governing the use of that technology have not kept pace, said Mark Kagan, an independent consultant based in Washington, D.C. Government access to data obtained by wireless carriers is governed by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a law passed in 1986 before cell phone use was widespread and long before mobile phones were used to track a person's movement. As a result, law enforcement agencies continue to battle privacy advocates for the right to obtain cell phone tracking data without a warrant showing probable cause. An ongoing case in the U.S. District Court in Houston pits Obama administration attorneys, who argue that cell phone location records are not precise enough to interfere with an individual's right to privacy, against lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, who contend that technological advances enable carriers to monitor the movement of cell phones with precision that is approaching that of GPS devices.
In international markets, privacy concerns present less of an impediment to use of the technology. In some countries, "privacy is a word in the dictionary and not much more," Shah said. Less stringent privacy laws coupled with heightened threats of terrorism have stoked international demand for cell phone tracking devices. While company officials are reticent to discuss specific customers and applications, Polaris Wireless confirmed that it has installed three mobile phone tracking systems in the Asia-Pacific region and two in the Middle East.
TruePosition officials declined to discuss regional sales, but Varano said the company's technology "is being used all over the world right now." To keep pace with demand, TruePosition has set up business offices in London, Dubai, Singapore and Miami, he added.
"For this capability to help in foreign lands, we will need to ensure the ground stations there have the capability engineered in," Gourley said. Polaris Wireless officials said they can offer similar results without modifications to ground stations. Nevertheless, none of the technologies can be rolled out in a day. At minimum, it takes months or years to deploy a new cell phone monitoring capability, industry officials said.
In the U.S., the use of cell phone tracking is constrained by law, but the technology itself is ubiquitous because of the 911 emergency calling system. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission requires wireless carriers to be able to determine the latitude and longitude of 911 callers with GPS-enabled phones to within 50 meters 67 percent of the time and within 150 meters 95 percent of the time. For networks that do not rely on GPS to track phones, the FCC mandates accuracy of 100 meters 67 percent of the time and 300 meters 90 percent of the time. For applications that require more precise cell phone detection, new devices are available. ITT Corp. markets a device designed specifically to combat the problem of illegal wireless phones used in prisons. To detect the location of those phones, ITT created Cell Hound, which uses sensors to scan wireless frequencies in search of calls. Once a call is detected, the information is sent to a central server that processes the data and presents the phone's location on a computer monitor.
"Our algorithm figures out where the phone really is when the RF energy in the prison is bouncing around like a billiard ball," said Terry Bittner, director of security products for ITT Corp.'s Intelligence and Information Warfare division in Columbia, Md.
Cell Hound, which has been used in prisons for three years, has its roots in a product designed for intelligence applications. "We have deployed systems in other parts of the world for the purpose of locating or at least detecting cell phones in areas where there should not be any phones or phones can be carried but not turned on," Bittner said.
He declined to discuss the location of those systems but said their application is similar to that of Cell Hound. Sensors scan a broader range of frequencies in search of signals. Once signals are detected, ITT networks can discreetly track those cell phones or set off flashing lights and buzzers to remind people to turn off their phones.
"In some military and classified applications, you don't necessarily want to snag the phone, you just want to make sure it is turned off," Bittner said. ITT designed Cell Hound specifically to comply with U.S. privacy laws. Although cell phones initiate two-way communications every time a call is dialed, the ITT sensors look only for the signal sent from the phone to the cell tower. "We are only interested in finding active devices," Bittner said.
In addition, Cell Hound does not intercept the phone number, record the call itself or capture text messages. "We do not demodulate the signal in this product," Bittner said. "That is not to say we could not do that."
In fact, companies possess a wide range of capabilities to monitor wireless phones and influence their use. AirPatrol Corp. of Columbia, Md., specializes in detecting, locating and monitoring cellular and wireless activity.
"We can tell where the cell phones are and how they are being used," said Dennis Pollutro, AirPatrol chief executive. Certain organizations, for example, may want to allow cell phones to be used in the parking lot but not in specific buildings. Or, an agency may want to disable specific applications on one floor of a building or in a particular room.
While AirPatrol does not build the devices that would interfere with the cell phone's operation, it provides the data that enables those devices to work. "We provide the contextual information about the devices so other technology can do the interdiction," he added.
These applications are popular, Pollutro said, because cell phones are simply mobile computers operating on networks that are not controlled by the individual using the phone.
"It's the Wild West for computers all over again because cell phones are very powerful computing devices that run over a big network we don't own or manage," he added.