GOV’T. TRACKING CELL PHONES WITHOUT COURT ORDER
by David Bresnahan
January 4, 2006
Summary: Turn on your cell phone and you give government agencies instant information about your location, and even your speed of travel. It may not be long before you get a speeding ticket in the mail, or police at your door.
KANSAS CITY, MO. — Drivers with cell phones are being tracked in a new government program designed to monitor the location and speed of cell phones in vehicles moving along Missouri highways.
The state of Missouri has entered into a $6.2 million contract with National Engineering Technology Corporation (NET) to track cell phone users, without their permission.
The first test of the system is now under way in Kansas City and St. Louis, according to published reports. The high-tech, government authorized spy network is operated by NET and Delcan, a Canadian company. The two are owned by ITIS Holdings, a British company.
Cell phone tracking is also taking place in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Norfolk, Va., Atlanta and Macon, Ga. Vehicles with E-ZPass or FasTrak toll transponder payment systems are also easily tracked by government agencies in a similar way.
Missouri is the first government agency to begin a program designed to track the movement of vehicles, ostensibly to provide traffic information to motorists in real time. The same electronic tracking information has potential to be used for much more.
Federal regulations now require cell phones to transmit a signal that identifies the location of the phone for use by 911 operators. That same information can be used to track any cell phone that is turned on.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has called for a system that enables consumers to opt out of the tracking program, according to news reports.
The information being gathered by the Missouri Department of Transportation could be used for far more than just providing traffic information to the public on crowded highways. The tracking system can provide the exact location of any cell phone user, track movements of a cell phone, tap into a cell phone conversation, and even be used to issue speeding tickets by mail.
The Missouri program charts the relative speed of drivers by measuring the time between the intermittent signals cell phones send to towers along a stretch of road. That information is then used with computerized highway maps to show the location and speed of each cell phone.
Under the current contract for services, the private information associated with each cell phone is deleted from the system, so there is nothing in the present service that identifies individual cell phone owners. However, opponents are concerned that in the future that information will be used to send speeding tickets to drivers by mail.
Officials in the Missouri Dept. of Transportation were quoted in local press reports as being in favor of selling the tracking information to outside users in order to pay for the costs of the system.
The terms of the contract with NET allows that company to sell the tracking information to outside vendors. The government has no authority to monitor where the information ends up, according the terms of the contract.
After the first two years of the contract the state can enter into a revenue sharing agreement with NET and receive funds from the selling of the tracking information to third parties, giving the government an interest in selling information instead of protecting it. The government could also begin issuing speeding tickets by mail as an added means to generate even more revenue.
The traffic monitoring plans assume NET will market more detailed information to the private sector – automakers that offer onboard navigation systems, cell phone companies, shipping businesses, or media traffic reporting.
The government has no plans at the present time to notify cell phone users that their phones may be tracked without their knowledge or permission, according to news reports. There is also no means to provide for consumers who wish to opt out. Presently the only way to do that is to turn cell phones off.
“It’s a mission creep issue that would be of most concern to consumers,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of EPIC, as reported by AP. “They may start out saying we want to know if there’s a traffic problem and then take that information and start using it for different purposes.”
Part 1, “Gov’t. Wins Court Authorization to Spy on Cell Phone Use”
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