Monday, September 19, 2005

They know where you are and what you are saying

Yesterday I met the head of InSafe, an internet awareness network which was established by the European Commission, and we had an interesting chat. As we were talking about internet security I mentioned this Financial Times story that I had read a while back:
Once police or the security services know the mobile phone number of a suspect, they can ask the mobile operator to track the individual.
As long as the handset is switched on the telephone can be tracked across any mobile network in real time.
By using no more than three mobile telephone masts or base stations - a process known as triangulation - it is possible to pin down the location of an individual in high density urban areas to between two and three metres. Crucial to this triangulation is the proximity to each other of the three base stations, but on average the standard deviation is no more than 25 metres.
If ordered to do so, mobile telephone operators can also tap any calls, but more significantly they can also remotely install a piece of software on to any handset, without the owner's knowledge, which will activate the microphone even when its owner is not making a call, giving security services the perfect bugging device. "We have inadvertently started carrying our own trackable ID card in the form of the mobile phone," said Sandra Bell, head of the homeland security department at the Royal United Services Institute.
The UK security services have used mobile telephone records to trap IRA terrorists in the past and the police have been helped in solving high-profile murders and abductions too.
The usefulness of these methods is underscored by the fact that the British and Italian police forces were able to catch Hamdi Issac, one of the London bombers, this way. The InSafe head also told me of a recent event that shows these tools are even more far-reaching. Following an incident at a soccer stadium in the Netherlands, the police, which was looking for witnesses, contacted 1,400 people via text messages, to ask them to come forward. The only way they knew these people had been there at the time was through their cell phone records. So not only can they pinpoint where you are at the time of the investigation, but they can even find out where you have been in the past.
It is somewhat worrying to know that everything we say can be recorded and our exact position and past movements can be pinpointed as long as we carry a cell phone. It seems to me that it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand I don't want to impede investigations, catching terrorists, criminals and the like. On the other, I am apprehensive about potential abuses and lack of awareness among the general population. I think governments need to put in place legislation that allows the police - subject to permission from the judiciary (just like with bugging and detaining criminals) - to benefit from this new tool that significantly aids investigations, while at the same time imposing strict limits on how this information is handled, especially since it is gathered not by the police directly but by the phone companies who own the telephone masts.

1 comment:

Ulysses Grunewald said...

Are there other forums/blogs that are more specific for this topic? I have not found one.