Friday, January 22, 2010
Your Cell Phone Is A Homing Beacon
gas before I got home, I left my house again at around 5:30 to take my son to his Karate lesson. While I was out I stopped by the local library to return some books and then swung over to the dry cleaners to pick up my shirts and slacks and some stuff for my wife. I picked up my son from his lesson and we stopped off at the grocery store to pick up some bread and milk on our way back to the house. Now, you aren’t the first people to know my whereabouts that night. Because I had my cellular phone with me, the cell phone company that provides my cellular services knew where I was at the entire time. They tracked me with my cellular telephone.How is this possible?It is possible because people who use their cell phone need to be able to make a call whenever and wherever they may be located at the time they dial the number on their phone. Therefore, the cellular companies must be able to route the call to the nearest cellular tower, which in turn sends your call to the satellite in space, which sends your signal to the person you are calling. The tower that handled the call is typically logged (and stored indefinitely) on the wireless provider’s computers, though it’s not noted on the customer’s monthly bill. In order for the cell phone company to know what tower you are at, they must be able to track the signal from your cell phone when it is on.In the expanded age of advanced communication and the literally thousands of issues of privacy that it has since spawned, many people would be horrified to learn that they can be tracked by the phone company via their mobile phone. The phone companies claim this is a integral part of the service they provide, privacy advocates say that this is just another way large corporations have invaded our lives.Wading into the fray over this controversy concerning your cell phone is another larger and important player: law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies are now utilizing the technology of tracking cellular signals to catch criminals and terrorists. A few cases of dangerous criminals being tracked and caught while on their telephones have been documented and law enforcement is now fighting with the cellular companies to ensure its continued use.Have we lost our privacy by cell phone tracking or have we just gained a valuable tool for law enforcement to use in keeping us safe? Do the cell phone companies need to know where you are in order to provide their service, or have they found, as some privacy advocates claim, a backdoor into your life, your locations, your shopping habits?Part One: Mobile 911.According to the TechTV Show “Talkback”, Cell phones show where you are, and that is simply part of their design. Without the ability to pinpoint where the signal from your phone is coming from, calls could never be connected. Because cell phones decry the use of wires, and the users making the calls are often on the move, the call and the receiving signal are not at a fixed location. Therefore, the signal from the cell phone must be tracked.Cell phone service areas are divided into “cells,” each of which is serviced by a base station. When you make a call, your cell phone selects the strongest base station it can find, which is usually the closest station to you. If you move out of the coverage of one base station, your phone switches to the next strongest available base station (which usually means you move into a new cell). The system always knows your location relative to the nearest cell. This occurs even when your phone is on but not being used. For efficiency’s sake, an idle cell phone sends out a message on the access channel so that the system will know where to direct the page if you get an incoming call. The system knows where you are. In an urban area, each tower covers an area of approximately 1 to 2 square miles, so a caller’s general location is fairly easy to pinpoint.The proliferation of cellular phones and their usage gave birth to a very unique problem: How would emergency operators track callers who called 911 on their mobile phone? Dialing 911 from a traditional, wire-based telephone, allowed the operator to track where the call was being placed, so that an emergency response could be sent. On mobile phones, the people calling in the emergency had no idea where they were, and the 911 operators had no way of exactly pin pointing where the calls where originating. Enter e911. According to the web site “Webopedia” , E911 is “short for Enhanced 911, a location technology advanced by the FCC that enables cellular phones to process 911 emergency calls and enable emergency services to locate the geographic position of the caller. When a person makes a 911 call using a traditional phone with ground wires, the call is routed to the nearest public safety answering point (PSAP) that then distributes the emergency call to the proper services. The PSAP receives the caller’s phone number and the exact location of the phone from which the call was made. Prior to 1996, 911 callers using a mobile phone would have to access their service providers in order to get verification of subscription service before the call was routed to a PSAP. In 1996 the FCC ruled that a 911 call must go directly to the PSAP without receiving verification of service from a specific cellular service provider. The call must be handled by any available service carrier even if it is not the cellular phone customer’s specific carrier. Under the FCC’s rules, all mobile phones manufactured for sale in the United States after February 13, 2000, that are capable of operating in an analog mode must include this special method for processing 911 calls. ”In an article entitled “How cell phones reveal your location” published on the Slate web site, with e911, emergency operators were able to track calls from wireless phones in less to one or one half of a mile from where the call originated. The technology was so successfully that the government made it a law that all cellular phones carry the technology that enables calls to be tracked. This law is called the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 (911 Act) and signed into law by President Clinton on October 26, 1999. According to the law, 95 percent of all cell phones must be E911 compliant by the end of 2005.In compliance with the new law, and to better improve the service with its customers, many cell phone handsets are now equipped with Global Positioning System chips, which determine a caller’s coordinates by receiving signals beamed down from a satellite array. The chip factors together the signals’ different arrival times to calculate the phone’s coordinates, using a mathematical process known as trilateration. At present, however, GPS data is typically not recorded for non-emergency purposes, unless the user has explicitly signed up for a location-based service. Part Two: The Hacker and the TerroristKevin Mitnick was a hacker. That is to say, he was king of all the hackers. Mitnick, “America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw,” eluded the police, US Marshalls, and FBI for over two years after vanishing while on probation for his 1989 conviction for computer and access device fraud. His downfall was his Christmas 1994 break-in to Tsutomu Shimomura’s computers in San Diego, California. Shimomura just happened to be the head of computing technology at the San Diego Super Computer Center. Less than two months after having his computers hacked, Shimomura had tracked Mitnick down after a cross-country electronic pursuit. Mitnick was arrested by the FBI in Raleigh, North Carolina, on February 15th, 1995. Mitnick was charged in North Carolina with 23 counts of access device fraud for his activities shortly before his arrest. In California, he was charged with an additional 25 counts of access device, wire, and computer fraud. On March 16, 1999, Mitnick plead guilty to five of these counts and two additional counts from the Northern District of California. He was sentenced to 46 months and three years probation. He was released from prison on January 21, 2000, being eligible for early release after serving almost 60 months of his 68 month sentence. How was the FBI able to capture “America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw”? By tracking down a signal from his cell phone.Luke Helder was going to set off some bombs. Specifically, he was going to set off bombs in mailboxes across the United States until the locations of his bombs made a “smiley face” pattern across the map of the U.S. He probably would have accomplished his morbid feat had he not made one crucial mistake; he turned on his cell phone. According to USA Today, as soon as he activated it, FBI agents quickly triangulated his position between two rural towns and had him in handcuffs within an hour, according to Nevada authorities. The fact that another motorist spotted Helder in passing helped authorities, but the cell phone signal was a dead giveaway”We got a call from the FBI at approximately 3:20 p.m. that the cell phone that (Helder) had been known to have had been activated somewhere between Battle Mountain and Golconda,” said Maj. Rick Bradley of the Nevada Highway Patrol. “We started hitting Interstate 80.”Bradley said tracking down Helder without the pinpoint location provided by the FBI would have been tougher, given the sprawling region.”It’s really a rural area. There’s not that much police presence,” Bradley said. Cell phone triangulation is a well-known tracking method within the wireless industry, said Michael Barker, an equipment sales manager for Cell-Loc, based in Calgary, Alberta. His company provides tracking services to help people who are incapacitated and unable to dial for help.and out of cell tower range.According to Slate, Location data extrapolated from tower records is frequently used in criminal cases. It was vital, for example, to the prosecution of David Westerfield, who was convicted of murder
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