Read These Together
Libya is only the latest place where Western surveillance technology has turned up. Human rights activists arrested and later released in Bahrain report being presented with transcripts of their own text messages — a capacity their government acquired through equipment from Siemens, the German industrial giant, and maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks, based in Finland, and Trovicor, another German company. Earlier this year, after storming the secret police headquarters, Egyptian activists discovered that the Mubarak government had been using a trial version of a tool — developed by Britain’s Gamma International — that allowed them to eavesdrop on Skype conversations, widely believed to be safe from wiretapping…
[M]any of these tools were first developed for Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Western policy makers are therefore in a delicate spot. On the one hand, it is hard to rein in the very companies they have nurtured; it is also hard to resist the argument from repressive regimes that they need such technologies to monitor extremists. On the other hand, it’s getting harder to ignore the fact that extremists aren’t the only ones under surveillance.
The obvious response is to ban the export of such technologies to repressive governments. But as long as Western states continue using monitoring technologies themselves, sanctions won’t completely eliminate the problem — the supply will always find a way to meet the demand. Moreover, dictators who are keen on fighting extremism are still welcome in Washington: it’s a good bet that much of the electronic spying done in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was done with the tacit support of his American allies. What we need is a recognition that our reliance on surveillance technology domestically — even if it is checked by the legal system — is inadvertently undermining freedom in places where the legal system provides little if any protection. That recognition should, in turn, fuel tighter restrictions on the domestic surveillance-technology sector, including a reconsideration of the extent to which it actually needs such technology in our increasingly privacy-free world.
Around the world, TruePosition markets something it calls “location intelligence,” or LOCINT, to intelligence and law enforcement agencies. As a homeland security tool, it’s enticing. Imagine an “invisible barrier around sensitive sites like critical infrastructure,” such as oil refineries or power plants, TruePosition’s director of marketing, Brian Varano, tells Danger Room. The barrier contains a list of known phones belonging to people who work there, allowing them to pass freely through the covered radius. “If any phone enters that is not on the authorized list, [authorities] are immediately notified.”
TruePosition calls that “geofencing.” As a company white paper explains, its location tech “collects, analyzes, stores and displays real-time and historical wireless events and locations of targeted mobile users.”
It can also work other ways: pinging authorities when a phone used by a suspected terrorist or criminal enters an airport terminal, bus station or other potential target. And it works just as well in monitoring the locations of phones the suspect’s phone calls — and who they call and text, and so on…
Here’s how it works. TruePosition’s location tool, known as Uplink Time Difference of Arrival or U-TDOA, calculates the time it takes a signal travelling from a mobile device to reach sensitive receivers installed in the transceiver station of a cell tower. (The receiver itself is said to resemble a pizza box.) Determining the difference in time it takes for the signal to reach receivers in different towers, determined by servers called Wireless Location Processors, calculates the phone’s location. The company says it has receivers installed in about 75,000 cell towers around the country.
Notice that the location tech here has nothing to do with GPS. It’s network-based, rather than dependent on a GPS receiver inside a handset. It’s not reliant on any line of sight to a satellite. That’s a point of pride within TruePosition. GPS has accuracy and precision woes in dense urban areas and the indoors. Or inside the trunk of a car.
[G]eofences might be legally problematic inside the United States. Law enforcement can’t just set up blanket location surveillance of mobile phones around a particular area; courts have to sanction surveillance around specific phones. The fences, however, would approve specific authorized phones; but any unauthorized phone that enters the fence triggers an alert.
“It would be hard for the company’s tool to distinguish the terrorist from the tourist,” says Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.
And what if the governments using TruePosition’s gear aren’t so scrupulous about following laws, or respecting the civil liberties of their citizens? In the U.S., even after the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act, law enforcement and intelligence agencies still don’t have unfettered abilities to turn a cellphone into a homing device, or to trace a web of connections between callers or SMS recipients. If, say, Syria’s Bashar Assad had TruePosition’s technology, could he use it to determine who’s participating in anti-government protests?
“Correct,” Varano says, “if it was deployed in that region.” He adds, however, “we’ve never run into anything like that.”
Varano won’t specify which governments use TruePosition’s LOCINT tools. “I have to be nebulous about where it’s actually being deployed,” he says. That includes inside the United States. “We do not disclose who is currently using TruePosition LOCINT,” Varano says, but adds, “U.S. government [agencies] have not bought anything from us, and don’t write a check to us.” But, he says, the company’s various outposts (London, Dubai, Miami) pitch LOCINT solutions to countries from Europe to the Middle East to Latin America to the Carribean.
As TruePosition puts it, in a white paper by Mark Kagen:
The ability to locate any phone in any environment with high accuracy provides an invaluable tool for security and law enforcement officials who must uncover, identify, track, monitor, deter, and prevent criminal and terrorist activities. At a time when government agencies are stretched thin in these missions, U-TDOA-based technologies offer cost-effective capabilities to help leverage existing resources and plug gaps, both literally and figuratively, in security “fences.”The cell phone has been an invaluable tool for criminals and terrorists to plan and carry out operations and activities. As part of a defense-indepth security strategy, TruePosition LOCINT technology is a dynamic tool that makes it possible to turn cell phone use by criminals or terrorists into the means to stop or apprehend them.