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Reach Out and Track Someone

BY Terry J. Allen

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 Constitution.

“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.

Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

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