ANOTHER VIEW— Commentary

Law enforcement can take advantage of Lawful Intercept solutions

As the world continues its love affair with high-tech gadgets, criminals are also going high tech. Now, more than ever, criminal activity is increasingly being planned and carried out using mobile devices. Relying on mobile phones, criminals can coordinate their actions from miles away, phoning each other, sending texts and accessing online information in an effort to evade detection by law enforcement agencies.

However, law enforcement is becoming better equipped as well, with the legal ability to secure warrants to tap into criminals’ communications, including those transmitted wirelessly. In addition to listening in on their conversations and data transmissions by intercepting them, law enforcement agencies are able to precisely pinpoint the locations of the handsets sending and receiving the transmissions, allowing agents to better identify, engage and capture criminals, and even prevent crimes.

It may seem like a plot twist in the latest spy novel, but Lawful Intercept (LI), which allows law enforcement to monitor communications, can now pinpoint the locations of wireless handsets to within tens of meters, allowing police and investigators to better coordinate a swift response to rapidly changing situations.

With the availability of funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a tremendous opportunity exists to equip our local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with the capability to capture this vital location information for use in criminal investigations and anti-terrorism measures. In the past, officers and agents have had to rely exclusively on interpreting intercepted data and voice communications associated only with crude cell tower location information. Now, they can use high-accuracy location information to turn intercepted data into actionable intelligence by reliably plotting the location of suspects in real time.

Location in emergency situations

To exemplify how location-enabled LI solutions can help, we can use the multi-agency effort to combat drug smuggling across the country’s southern border. According to the Government Accountability Office, there are more than 500,000 illegal crossings per year over this 2,000-mile boundary, most of them assisted by people on both sides of the border who frequently communicate via wireless devices. Given that the border region is pocked with remote high desert and mountainous terrain, keeping track of the drug trafficking — much less stopping it — is an arduous task.

To help stem the flow of illegal drugs, U.S. law enforcement agencies can overlay a virtual electronic geo-fence around the border area and track the location of wireless mobile devices that cross into the region. Suspicious activity — such as movement toward unpopulated areas — could be flagged for further investigation and dispatchers could alert border patrol assets in the field. If an investigation warrants further action, the mobile devices could be tracked in real time — like a virtual bread-crumb trail — guiding agents directly in their path. At the same time, communication with co-conspirators on the U.S. side of the border can also be traced, helping to take down the entire organization — even if the masterminds are orchestrating the operation remotely from a Manhattan penthouse. Post-event analysis could also be used to provide valuable information to prosecute the drug traffickers.

Key challenge: accuracy and reliability

Currently, U.S. enforcement agencies leverage other technologies in their efforts to combat drug smuggling across the southern border. Location-enabled LI solutions would fit into existing efforts as a critical and synergistic law enforcement tool. Access to highly-accurate location information can help law enforcement agencies work within the law to efficiently and effectively identify, engage and capture suspected criminals. However, the key to gathering actionable location information from LI solutions is accuracy and reliability.

In the above example, existing location technologies such as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices would be useless because it is unlikely the drug traffickers would use GPS-enabled phones, or they would simply turn off that capability or jam it. When GPS is available, line-of-sight issues make it unreliable in dense urban, hilly and indoor environments — areas where most criminal activity takes place. Other location technologies such as Cell-ID — a solution that uses information from cell towers to determine approximate position of a handset — can only determine location to within several miles in these environments.

A method that can provide the appropriate level of reliability and accuracy to within tens of meters is Wireless Location Signatures (WLS), a technology that uses the principle that every location has a unique radio frequency signature. Like a fingerprint’s pattern of lines and swirls, a location can be identified by a unique set of values, including measurements of neighboring cell signal strengths, time delays and other network parameters. Unlike GPS, pattern matching using WLS is enhanced by rocky terrain, surrounding buildings and other clutter, using the signal reflections to further enrich handset signatures. As the technologies on mobile devices continue to improve, the handset signatures become richer and further enhance accuracy — perhaps one day even providing vertical coordinates in large buildings or underground in smuggling tunnels.

Funding availability for high-accuracy, location-enabled LI applications through the stimulus package could revolutionize the way law enforcement agencies use interception technologies to identify, track and prosecute criminals. Specifically on the southern border, highly-accurate location information can help stretch manpower over a large region, giving officers and agents the upper hand against ever more sophisticated drug smugglers. Although most U.S. agencies already have the ability to tap into voice and data communication over a wireless network with a warrant, access to accurate location information would undoubtedly curtail criminal activity, bring about justice and save lives.

Reader Comments

Mon, Sep 28, 2009

The technology described here is neither triangulation nor a High Frequency Direction Finding tactical solution. This technology is a network-based technology that uses inherent information in networks to produce a high accuracy location using pattern matching. The technology has been in commercial use for emergency call services and other applications for 10+ years.

Thu, Aug 20, 2009 Peter Hillier Ottawa, Canada

What you appear to be talking about is triangulation technology. The kind that High frequency Direction Finding has been using for a very long time. There is open source software to facilitate what you are opining on here and the technology is certainly nothing new. Vendors even use it to identify breaches in wireless networks these days.

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