bodyguard – Your Cell Phone as a Beacon

Last night was a pretty typical weeknight at my home, I drove home from work and filled up with gas before I got home, I left my house again at around 5:30 to take my son to his Karate lesson. While I was out I stopped by the local library to return some books and then swung over to the dry cleaners to pick up my shirts and slacks and some stuff for my wife. I picked up my son from his lesson and we stopped off at the grocery store to pick up some bread and milk on our way back to the house.

Now, you aren’t the first people to know my whereabouts that night. Because I had my cellular phone with me, the cell phone company that provides my cellular services knew where I was at the entire time. They tracked me with my cellular telephone.

How is this possible?

It is possible because people who use their cell phone need to be able to make a call whenever and wherever they may be located at the time they dial the number on their phone. Therefore, the cellular companies must be able to route the call to the nearest cellular tower, which in turn sends your call to the satellite in space, which sends your signal to the person you are calling. The tower that handled the call is typically logged (and stored indefinitely) on the wireless provider’s computers, though it’s not noted on the customer’s monthly bill. In order for the cell phone company to know what tower you are at, they must be able to track the signal from your cell phone when it is on.

In the expanded age of advanced communication and the literally thousands of issues of privacy that it has since spawned, many people would be horrified to learn that they can be tracked by the phone company via their mobile phone. The phone companies claim this is a integral part of the service they provide, privacy advocates say that this is just another way large corporations have invaded our lives.

Wading into the fray over this controversy concerning your cell phone is another larger and important player: law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies are now utilizing the technology of tracking cellular signals to catch criminals and terrorists. A few cases of dangerous criminals being tracked and caught while on their telephones have been documented and law enforcement is now fighting with the cellular companies to ensure its continued use.

Have we lost our privacy by cell phone tracking or have we just gained a valuable tool for law enforcement to use in keeping us safe? Do the cell phone companies need to know where you are in order to provide their service, or have they found, as some privacy advocates claim, a backdoor into your life, your locations, your shopping habits?

Part One: Mobile 911.

According to the TechTV Show “Talkback”, Cell phones show where you are, and that is simply part of their design. Without the ability to pinpoint where the signal from your phone is coming from, calls could never be connected. Because cell phones decry the use of wires, and the users making the calls are often on the move, the call and the receiving signal are not at a fixed location. Therefore, the signal from the cell phone must be tracked.
Cell phone service areas are divided into “cells,” each of which is serviced by a base station. When you make a call, your cell phone selects the strongest base station it can find, which is usually the closest station to you.
If you move out of the coverage of one base station, your phone switches to the next strongest available base station (which usually means you move into a new cell). The system always knows your location relative to the nearest cell.
This occurs even when your phone is on but not being used. For efficiency’s sake, an idle cell phone sends out a message on the access channel so that the system will know where to direct the page if you get an incoming call. The system knows where you are. In an urban area, each tower covers an area of approximately 1 to 2 square miles, so a caller’s general location is fairly easy to pinpoint.
The proliferation of cellular phones and their usage gave birth to a very unique problem: How would emergency operators track callers who called 911 on their mobile phone? Dialing 911 from a traditional, wire-based telephone, allowed the operator to track where the call was being placed, so that an emergency response could be sent. On mobile phones, the people calling in the emergency had no idea where they were, and the 911 operators had no way of exactly pin pointing where the calls where originating.

Enter e911. According to the web site “Webopedia” , E911 is “short for Enhanced 911, a location technology advanced by the FCC that enables cellular phones to process 911 emergency calls and enable emergency services to locate the geographic position of the caller. When a person makes a 911 call using a traditional phone with ground wires, the call is routed to the nearest public safety answering point (PSAP) that then distributes the emergency call to the proper services. The PSAP receives the caller’s phone number and the exact location of the phone from which the call was made. Prior to 1996, 911 callers using a mobile phone would have to access their service providers in order to get verification of subscription service before the call was routed to a PSAP. In 1996 the FCC ruled that a 911 call must go directly to the PSAP without receiving verification of service from a specific cellular service provider. The call must be handled by any available service carrier even if it is not the cellular phone customer’s specific carrier. Under the FCC’s rules, all mobile phones manufactured for sale in the United States after February 13, 2000, that are capable of operating in an analog mode must include this special method for processing 911 calls. ”
In an article entitled “How cell phones reveal your location” published on the Slate ( web site, with e911, emergency operators were able to track calls from wireless phones in less to one or one half of a mile from where the call originated. The technology was so successfully that the government made it a law that all cellular phones carry the technology that enables calls to be tracked. This law is called the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 (911 Act) and signed into law by President Clinton on October 26, 1999. According to the law, 95 percent of all cell phones must be E911 compliant by the end of 2005.

In compliance with the new law, and to better improve the service with its customers, many cell phone handsets are now equipped with Global Positioning System chips, which determine a caller’s coordinates by receiving signals beamed down from a satellite array. The chip factors together the signals’ different arrival times to calculate the phone’s coordinates, using a mathematical process known as trilateration. At present, however, GPS data is typically not recorded for non-emergency purposes, unless the user has explicitly signed up for a location-based service.

Part Two: The Hacker and the Terrorist

Kevin Mitnick was a hacker. That is to say, he was king of all the hackers. Mitnick, “America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw,” eluded the police, US Marshalls, and FBI for over two years after vanishing while on probation for his 1989 conviction for computer and access device fraud. His downfall was his Christmas 1994 break-in to Tsutomu Shimomura’s computers in San Diego, California. Shimomura just happened to be the head of computing technology at the San Diego Super Computer Center. Less than two months after having his computers hacked, Shimomura had tracked Mitnick down after a cross-country electronic pursuit. Mitnick was arrested by the FBI in Raleigh, North Carolina, on February 15th, 1995.
Mitnick was charged in North Carolina with 23 counts of access device fraud for his activities shortly before his arrest. In California, he was charged with an additional 25 counts of access device, wire, and computer fraud. On March 16, 1999, Mitnick plead guilty to five of these counts and two additional counts from the Northern District of California. He was sentenced to 46 months and three years probation. He was released from prison on January 21, 2000, being eligible for early release after serving almost 60 months of his 68 month sentence.
How was the FBI able to capture “America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw”? By tracking down a signal from his cell phone.

Luke Helder was going to set off some bombs. Specifically, he was going to set off bombs in mailboxes across the United States until the locations of his bombs made a “smiley face” pattern across the map of the U.S. He probably would have accomplished his morbid feat had he not made one crucial mistake; he turned on his cell phone.

According to USA Today, as soon as he activated it, FBI agents quickly triangulated his position between two rural towns and had him in handcuffs within an hour, according to Nevada authorities. The fact that another motorist spotted Helder in passing helped authorities, but the cell phone signal was a dead giveaway

“We got a call from the FBI at approximately 3:20 p.m. that the cell phone that (Helder) had been known to have had been activated somewhere between Battle Mountain and Golconda,” said Maj. Rick Bradley of the Nevada Highway Patrol. “We started hitting Interstate 80.”

Bradley said tracking down Helder without the pinpoint location provided by the FBI would have been tougher, given the sprawling region.

“It’s really a rural area. There’s not that much police presence,” Bradley said.

Cell phone triangulation is a well-known tracking method within the wireless industry, said Michael Barker, an equipment sales manager for Cell-Loc, based in Calgary, Alberta. His company provides tracking services to help people who are incapacitated and unable to dial for help.
and out of cell tower range.

According to Slate, Location data extrapolated from tower records is frequently used in criminal cases. It was vital, for example, to the prosecution of David Westerfield, who was convicted of murdering 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in San Diego. The killer’s cell-phone usage revealed a bizarre travel pattern in the two days following the girl’s disappearance, including a suspicious trip to the desert. In cases like this, wireless providers will not release a user’s records without a court order, save for rare instances in which a kidnapping has taken place and time is of the essence.

Domestic crime is not the only arena of law enforcement that is utilizing the tracking of mobile phone signals, the FBI and CIA have been using this technique in an effort to capture public enemy number one: Osama Bin Laden.

Author Dan Campbell, writing in the October 2001 issue of Telepolis Magazine, describes how the world’s most wanted man, coordinated his attacks via his mobile phone.
“Between 1996 and 1998, when the America’s embassy in Kenya was bombed, the FBI found that Osama bin Laden and his staff had spent nearly 40 hours making satellite phone calls from the mountains of Afghanistan. The calls, which can be sent and received from a special phone the size of a laptop computer, were relayed via a commercial satellite to sympathizers in the west.

The satellite phone appears to have been a huge convenience for the world’s most wanted terrorist. He was billed for thousands of minutes of use over two years, those records indicate, and used it to issue a fatwa in February 1998 that called on Muslims to kill Americans, including civilians, anywhere in the world.

Even now, as US forces move in for the kill, bin Laden’s satellite phone has not been cut off. But calls to the terrorist leader are going unanswered. His international phone number – 00873 682505331 – was disclosed during a trial, held in New York earlier this year. Calls to his once-active satellite link now hear only a recorded messages saying he is “not logged on”. “

Indeed, when bin Laden associates went to trial in April on charges of bombing U.S. embassies in Africa, the prosecution used billing records for calls from that phone to connect them to bin Laden–but not intercepts of conversations.

Apparently, the FBI are not the only individuals aware of the fact that the tracing of mobile phone signals can be used to track down an individual’s location. With American forces closing in on him during the battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, Osama bin Laden employed a simple trick against sophisticated United State spy technology to vanish into the mountains that led to Pakistan and sanctuary.

According to CBS News, A Moroccan who was one of bin Laden’s long-time bodyguards took possession of the al-Qaeda leader’s satellite phone on the assumption that US intelligence agencies were monitoring it to get a fix on their position, said senior Moroccan officials, who have interviewed the bodyguard, Abdallah Tabarak.

Tabarak moved away from bin Laden and his entourage as they fled, using the phone to divert the Americans and allow bin Laden to escape. Tabarak was later captured at Tora Bora in possession of the phone.

The use of Cell phone triangulation and the tracking of other mobile signals appear to be an effective weapon for law enforcement, one that many agencies are going to be reluctant to give up. But does the use of technology come at a price: the sacrifice of privacy and civil rights of the people using mobile technology.

Part Three: Cell Phone Commercials

The ability to track a person using their cell phone has not been lost on marketing professionals looking to find a new avenue into consumer buying habits and preferences. The ability to track individuals’ movements through their mobile signal has very appealing commercial potentials. For example:

? Your phone will be able to tell you where the nearest hospital, shopping mall, or McDonald’s is located
? Merchants could automatically send you location-based advertising and special offers when their technology senses you’re near their stores
? If you’ve pre-loaded their phone numbers and personal information, your phone could alert you when a friend or family member is in the area

“Advertisers are eager to use location services to alert you when you pass near a store that might be of interest. Such services are likely in some form, but carriers are proceeding cautiously. They’re aware you may not want to see ads for McDonalds every time you pass by the golden arches. Carriers don’t want to annoy users because it’s so easy to switch providers”, says Allen Nogee, a senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group said on the CNN web site.

The idea of advertisers and law enforcement knowing where you are at any given moment and where you have been has naturally rubbed privacy-advocate groups the wrong way. While there is some upsides for the use of this technology, privacy groups say the potential for abuse of this technology is very high and very real and they would like to see some provisions built into cell-phone tracking laws that allow for the privacy of the consumer not to be compromised.

“There certainly need to be better emergency procedures [for cell-phone calls],” says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C during an interview with ABC news. “But once the technology exists, there has to be some way for users to control how the info can be used.”

Sobel says while the FCC mandated the E911 program, federal legislators haven’t put into place how that information may be used or who would have access to it.

“The Justice Department and FBI do routinely get information from cell-phone service providers,” says Sobel. But, “There are lingering question on what the legal standard is to be used to get location information from cell-phone providers. There is nothing in federal law that addresses that issue.”

According to Sobel, another large privacy issue that might be at stake is not only the information that is being delivered by using this technology, but the technology itself might be violating the privacy of mobile communications just by the way the technology works.

“The e911 rules enacted by the Federal Communications Commission govern the emerging form of telecommunications known as “packet mode” communication. Law enforcement agencies already have the authority to demand information that identifies a phone call as long as it is separate from the call’s contents. However, with packet-mode communication technology, data containing the numbers cannot be separated from data containing phone conversations. Thus when police agencies demand phone number data, phone service providers will have to give them data containing conversations as well,” said Sobel.

Sobel and lawyers from two other organizations are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to block the FCC rules. “The FBI is seeking surveillance capabilities that far exceed the powers law enforcement has had in the past and is entitled to under the law,” Sobel said.

Similar legislation for the ability to track movements using mobile technology has met with stiff resistance in other countries. According to ZDNET UK ( in the United Kingdom, civil liberties advocates are outraged at the implications of the newly passed Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which could allow British law enforcement agencies to trace the movements of mobile phone users with a minimum of accountability. Privacy advocates have vowed to have this law over-turned in this country, but in the meantime, the British government plans to fully extend and incorporate this law into British law enforcement, no matter what privacy groups say.

“The whole point of RIP (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) is to update surveillance,” a spokeswoman from the British Home Office said. “If you haven’t broken the law then you’ve nothing to fear.”

Conclusion: Cell Phone Spam?

Law enforcement agencies, already beleaguered by an out of control handgun problem and a across the board rise in crime in the United States, coupled with the fact that they must now deal with the horrifying specter of terrorism in their cities, will not be too quick to give up a powerful new weapon in catching criminals, especially not one that will essentially tell them where they are exactly. Any fight that privacy groups may put up will ultimately prove to be futile to lawmakers in Congress, who want to be seen as giving law enforcement every chance they can to be effective.

However, privacy groups have a legitimate point in their fears that a technology of this sort is ripe to be exploited unless the lawmakers take action to limit the very personal data offered by this tracking technology. Email is a perfect example of a technology that, in its infant stages, was seen as revolutionary new form of communication. Now, email systems are so overloaded with spam coming in from not only the United States but also from Russia and Nigeria, that congress has acted to implement new laws to stem the tide.

Cell phones now have the ability to send and receive photographs, how much longer will it be before advertising, in full color begins to find its way to your telephone? The outrage of having “cell-phone spam” may be so great that he consumer uproar will cause any type of mobile technology to be severely limited by law, perhaps even stripping out some of the positive aspects such as those used by law enforcement.


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