War is Peace - Freedom is Slavery - Ignorance is Strength

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Smile - You're on Cingular Camera

Recently there has been a dribble of information coming out via the New York Times about secret and illegal NSA surveillance programs. What hasn't been mentioned, but is technologically quite feasible, is the exploitation of cell phone usage data to track individuals. This could be used either to locate specific individuals or similar to the analysis the NSA is doing of calling patterns, they could do a broad analysis of usage data to determine who is traveling where and with whom. For instance: a cell-phone used to call Saudi Arabia that has also been carried on site-seeing tours of national monuments could be flagged for investigation of possible terrorist activity.

You don't think this is possible? Think again. Even now, without E911 (the requirement that all cell-phone companies provide location data for emergency services), it is possible to track an individual’s movements via their cell-phone, even if you can't pinpoint their exact location.

Tracking is possible because even when your handset is not in use it is communicating with the network in order to maintain signal and enable the routing of calls. When you travel a few miles or more, your handset will communicate with different cell sites as you go, continuously looking for the best signal. With a record of those communications all one must do is analyze the timing of the connection to each cell site and they will have a map of where you have traveled. If the records available for analysis included signal strength information and your model took into account terrain related signal impairments, the tracking could be extremely accurate. This accuracy would be at its peak in urban areas where there are many cell sites and your handset is handing-off between them quite frequently.

We don't know exactly what information cell-phone companies collect and store, and if that information is being used for surveillance that fact would certainly be classified, but it is a possibility that this is taking place, and that deserves recognition and further investigation.

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