Sunday, December 30, 2012

Are They Tracking You? - Government Cell Phone Surveillance

From an article in "For the Defense" Winter 2012 • Volume XVI, Issue 4, New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, by Bill Elliott, Criminal Defense Investigative Specialist — Contact the author for a pdf copy of the full article.

With the recent ruling in USA v. Jones mandating that law enforcement will now need probable cause and a warrant prior to attaching a GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking device to someone’s vehicle, most people are feeling pretty secure that the government will not be tracking their every movement without good reason and authorization from a judge. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In fact, this narrow decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ( only addressed the issue of physically attaching a GPS tracker to someone’s vehicle and not the more common place practice of tracking someone using their cell phone...

What is a cell phone ‘ping’ and why all the government interest in cell site location data?

Simply stated, a cell ping is when a cell tower communicates with a cell phone in its area of coverage to see if there is a need to connect. Cell phones are continuously communicating with cell site towers every couple of seconds saying here I am, are you receiving my signal.

This is happening even if no call is being placed at the time. At times a cell phone may be communicating with as many as six cell towers at once as it nears a handoff point. Each cell tower is recording this contact and this information can be utilized to track the location and movements of the cell phone across town or across the country. A cell phone’s location can be identified to within a quarter-mile radius of the cell tower location. The location can be narrowed even further by utilizing information as to which side of the tower the cell phone was on and, using other cell phone towers to triangulate the cell phone’s signal, the actual location can be pinpointed with signal strength meters.

In a nutshell... If you voluntarily carry a GPS receiver with you (a feature of your cell phone), it is not a surveillance enhancement. Thus, it can be used against you.