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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Reader Comments

Fri, Jul 29, 2011

Yet another reason to not carry a turned-on cell phone. A burn phone in my briefcase, turned on once a week, more than meets my needs.

Mon, Jul 25, 2011 Holly

Isn't government already doing this? Terrorists have been hunted using this technology for some time.

Thu, Jul 21, 2011 earth

From the white paper: LOCINT can not be turned off by the owner of the cell phone and this private company can ping any turned on cell phone containing it (AT&T and T-Mobile -> 80% of market) at any time without the owners knowledge. Combine this with the costs of installing 75000 receivers and maintaining a communications network from all of them and you can be assured the location of U.S. citizens is being sold willy nilly to anyone willing to pay for it. This includes “for the past four years has been selling its “location intelligence” to intelligence and law enforcement agencies worldwide.” Foreigners with money and intent. Consider foreign intelligence being able to track 80% of U.S. citizen’s location to within feet. Troop movements could be tracked, the families of security personnel, civil rights activists, individuals targeted due to race, creed or any other malign intent. AND unless regulated heavily, this private corporation is very likely to sell this information to anyone just to be able to recoup cost so they are not to be considered any more self regulating that paparazzi. Indeed given ability to covertly track individuals coupled with the inability of individuals to turn it off or have knowledge of who this information is being sold to, it should be assumed not only this private company is doing so but also anyone capable of intercepting, interjecting or otherwise hacking the equipment and communications. So don’t think this is just a problem with this private company, didn’t the Taliban tap the communications with surveillance drones and therefore have excellent reconnaissance of Afghanistan. .

Thu, Jul 21, 2011 earth

Douglas joined the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe, which stated that a federally enforceable right to privacy, "whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."[7]
This implies a broad federally enforceable right to privacy and the Commerce Clause implies a federal right to regulate the “interstate commerce” of individual’s location.
Therefore there is a framework to federally regulate these commercial interests. And we can be sure they will not self regulate. This needs to be pushed as a citizen’s initiative to require opt in of any tracking of individuals. Non law enforcement first responders might be exempted but that would create a loophole if not stated precisely.

Thu, Jul 21, 2011

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. This is not true. Apple's file was primarily based on cell tower locations, not on GPS coordinates. The main distinctions between TruePosition's and Apple's are that (1) Apple's isn't sent to anyone, merely resides on the client's phone and sync'd devices, (2) TruePosition's uses triangulation to be more precise than Apple's which just records the LAT/LONG of the connected tower (NOT the user's position). Finally, TruePosition has their own radios positioned, so they're not limited to negotiation between the phone and the carrier, which Apple's and Google's geolocation systems are.

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