When do geolocation services go too far?

The ability to locate people via their cell phones has been a boon to first responders — such as police, firefighters and medics — responding to emergencies. It also can be used as a tool to prevent terrorism.

But at what point does using such a technology cross an ethical line? Surveillance experts and mobile activists are worried, for example, that it could be used to track and monitor dissidents.

Pennsylvania-based TruePosition, provider of the geolocation technology, for the past four years has been selling its “location intelligence” to intelligence and law enforcement agencies worldwide, reported Spencer Ackerman in Wired.

A white paper from the company lays out its case by citing the number of people processed each day at borders in the United States and around the world, and the number of cars, aircraft, ships and rail cars that carry those people and cargo. It also notes the prevalence of cell phones and other mobile devices, and the importance of communications to criminal and terrorist organizations.

“The most important tool in the security and law enforcement toolkit is intelligence — especially actionable intelligence,” the white paper states.

“Location intelligence, or location-based intelligence, provides one invaluable analytical tool for addressing these issues,” the paper states. “By combining location data with other types of data, such as mobile events captured from wireless networks, organizations can gain new insights into situations, predict behavior, identify patterns, streamline processes, improve decision making, and optimize resources.”

Few people know about TruePosition. That’s a deliberate strategy of the company, which grants few interviews, TruePosition’s director of marketing, Brian Varano, told Ackerman. To highlight that point, Ackerman spoke to FBI spokesman Christopher Allen, who said he was unfamiliar with TruePosition .

Christopher Soghoian, a graduate fellow at Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, described TruePosition as the most important global geolocation company you’ve never heard of, Wired reported. “It’s like that line about Keyser Soze from "The Usual Suspects" — "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. They’ve done the same thing. Staying entirely below the radar.”

LOCINT is not dependent on Global Positioning System technology, according to the company. Instead, it calculates the phone’s location via nearby cell phone towers, determining the differing lengths of time it takes for the signal to reach those towers. The company says it has installed receivers in about 75,000 cell towers in the United States.

TruePosition was not involved with Apple and Google’s privacy scandals earlier this May, both of which collected and stored users’ cell phone locations using GPS technology. Representatives from both companies appeared at a Senate hearing in early May to discuss privacy concerns regarding their practices.

In the United States, LOCINT is in AT&T (since it merged with Cingular in 2001) and T Mobile (2003) phones. However, U.S. government laws restrict its use to emergencies or similar situations. The courts are currently debating whether users would need to obtain a warrant before tracking individuals.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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