THE MAGAZINE

Tracking Wireless Devices

By Joseph Straw

Among the chilling revelations about last fall’s terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, was the attackers’ sophisticated use of consumer wireless technology to plan their strike and to communicate during its execution. According to The Washington Post, the terrorists carried cellular phones, BlackBerrys offering voice communication and e-mail, portable GPS units, and CDs bearing maps of the area based on open-source satellite imagery.

The question is whether it’s possible to turn the technology tables on the terrorists. At least one company is working on a way to do just that by adapting technology—now used to identify the location of a cell phone that dials 911—so that it could help authorities track terrorists via their mobile devices. One roadblock: legal and privacy concerns are likely to limit implementation in the West.

GPS technology, increasingly common in cell phones, but not active in most devices, offers location accuracy to within about 30 meters. Cellular networks themselves, however, can only help narrow a device’s whereabouts to within about 350 meters, depending on the number and proximity of network sites in the area.

Berwyn, Pennsylvania-based location tracking vendor TruePosition, which developed the technology used for 911 location, says that it has found a way to yield much more precise real-time location information from cellular phones. The result is accurate to within 50 meters, the company says.

The technology, called LOCINT, piggybacks on existing cellular transmission sites. It gets its precision by pulling information from as many as 50 contact points as the cell phone communicates with nearby towers—far beyond a simple triangulation model. It is already deployed in Middle Eastern and Asia-Pacific countries where there are no legal restrictions on tracking cell phone signals.

Those applications are primarily for intrusion detection, says Brian Varano, TruePosition’s director of marketing. Using a geofencing application, security authorities can set alarms at protected sites to alert if an unauthorized cellular device enters a designated area. The system then tracks the device’s whereabouts. Although many cellular devices that are turned off still “check in” with their network, Varano says devices must be turned on for the geofencing function to work properly.

If LOCINT had been in use during the Mumbai attack, authorities could conceivably have used the tracking information to locate the terrorists in the hotels as they were collecting and holding hostages. The authorities could also have possibly contacted the wireless providers and asked them to deny service to all devices except those carried by registered hotel guests (likely hostages) or first responders.

The technology may also help authorities investigate an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in which the bomb trigger mechanism incorporates a cellular phone. In this type of attack, insurgents simply call or send a text message to the phone to trigger the IED.

If an IED had been detonated and authorities suspected a cell-phone-based trigger, cellular providers that use LOCINT could call up a list of incoming calls to phones in the explosion’s vicinity at the moment of the explosion. Then, the system would provide the numbers from which those calls originated and their locations when the call was placed.

That data would reveal where the person was when the call was placed, which would then allow authorities to pull CCTV footage of the area. And while the phone is unlikely to be registered in the name of the perpetrator, authorities could determine who had placed calls to—or received calls from—the phone. That information might lead to associates of the bomber and to the locations where the phones are often used, which might reveal a safe house where a sleeper cell hides out.

The tracking and mapping capabilities could also aid in the investigation of suspected terror cells, even if operatives only use phones briefly and then throw them out.

Despite the technology’s potential, legal hurdles are likely to impede its use within the United States. The country’s judicial system has not arrived at a legal standard for allowing criminal investigators to track suspects’ location via wireless device. In rulings, judges have asked Congress explicitly for guidance. There’s no sign that such guidance will be forthcoming from Congress anytime soon.

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