Reach Out and Track Someone
By Terry J. Allen, In These Times
Posted on May 11, 2006, Printed on May 11, 2006

If you are one of the more than 200 million Americans with a cell phone
nestled in your pocket, authorities may be able to find you any time day or
night--even if you never make or receive a call.

You know the Verizon ad where a lockstep crowd personifies the network that
accompanies its customer everywhere? Well, within that seemingly friendly
horde, a high-tech Big Brother is lurking.

Most people know that when they make a mobile call--during a 911 emergency,
for example--authorities can access phone company technology to pin down
their location, sometimes to within a few feet.

A lesser-known fact: Cell phone companies can locate you any time you are
in range of a tower and your phone is on. Cell phones are designed to work
either with global positioning satellites or through "pings" that allow
towers to triangulate and pinpoint signals. Any time your phone "sees" a
tower, it pings it.

That is what happened last month when a New York City murder highlighted
the existence of the built-in capability of phones to locate people even
when they aren't making calls.

The case of Imette St. Guillen captivated the New York City media as only
the murder of a young, attractive, middle-class, white female can. One
piece of evidence leading to the arrest of Darryl Littlejohn, the bouncer
at the club where St. Guillen was last seen, was what police called "cell
phone records." In fact, it was not an actual call that placed Littlejohn
at the crime scene. Instead, according to the New York Daily News, police
traced Littlejohn's route the day of the murder by tracking the "pings" of
his cell phone, which were "stored" in a tower and "later retrieved from
T-Mobile by cops."

Telecom companies and government are not eager to advertise that tracking
capability. Nor will companies admit whether they are archiving the
breadcrumb trail of pings from a cell phone so that they--or
authorities--can trace back, after the fact, where the customer had been at
a particular time. "Of course, there is that capability," says Bruce
Schneier, chief technical officer with Counterpane Internet Security.
"Verizon and the other companies have access to that information and the
odds are zero that they wouldn't sell it if it is legal and profitable.
This is capitalism after all."

But legality can be so tricky to pin down, especially when national
security and corporate profits are involved. Communications companies and
government have been repeatedly caught collaborating in highly questionable
practices. Warrantless wiretapping, now sparking cries for Bush's
impeachment, was implemented by the NSA accessing the "gateway" switches
that route calls around the globe. Most of these switches are controlled by
AT&T, MCI and Sprint.

Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said it had internal
AT&T documents and a sworn statement by retired AT&T technician Mark Klein
showing that the company's use of a "dragnet surveillance" was "diverting
Internet traffic into the hands of the NSA wholesale."

It is likely that authorities are also accessing cell phone call records
and conducting real-time tracing of hapless Palestinians who donated to
clinics and liberal activists who dared march for peace. And if the
administration's record is a guide, it is interpreting privacy protection
laws relating to cell phones in ways that bend and perhaps batter the

"I think there's a substantial worry that location information about cell
phone users is being released without a court order," EFF Staff attorney
Kevin Bankston told CNN.

Echoing the Bush administration's rationale for warrantless wiretapping,
the Justice Department argues that time lost justifying a search warrant
can mean dangerous delays. Several judges around the country have
disagreed. Citing officials' failure to show probable cause, they have
denied government requests for cell phone tracking. According to EFF, a New
York magistrate revealed that "the Justice Department had routinely been
using a baseless legal argument to get secret authorizations from a number
of courts, probably for many years."

"Justice Department officials countered that courts around the country have
granted many such orders in the past without requiring probable cause," the
Oct. 28 Washington Post reported.

Real-time tracking technology also opens disturbing entrepreneurial
opportunities. Anyone who provides their kids, spouse or employees with a
software-readied cell phone can secretly monitor them on the web.
Wherify.com "locates loved ones within feet/meters in about a minute," and
allows subscribers to "view location on both street and aerial mapping, to
include date/time stamp, lat/long and block address" and "set breadcrumb
schedule for periodic locates." Another Internet business promises to sell
you the calling records for any phone number you provide. (Note to readers:
If you have Karl Rove's number, I'll cough up the $100 fee to get a look.)

But as far as invasiveness goes, the ability of the government to secretly
track and find you anywhere, anytime, ranks right up with a pelvic exam in
Times Square.

2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/36151/