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Friday, October 14, 2005

Better regulation through cell phones


More news on the cell phone front today. The AP reports that
...the Missouri Department of Transportation is finalizing a contract to monitor thousands of cell phones, using their movements to map real-time traffic conditions statewide on all 5,500 miles of major roads.
The government claims we shouldn't be worried, because the information will be collected anonymously. Privacy advocates aren't so sure:
"Even though its anonymous, it's still ominous," said Daniel Solove, a privacy law professor at George Washington University and author of "The Digital Person." "It troubles me, because it does show this movement toward using a technology to track people."
Less sophisticated traffic monitoring technology is being used to justify the more obtrusive methods. According to the AP, the slippery slope goes like this:
Governments have had the ability to measure traffic volumes and speeds for years. They can embed sensors in pavement, or mount scanners and cameras along the road. But those monitoring methods require the installation of equipment, which must be maintained, and can take only a snapshot of traffic at a particular spot.

In contrast, "almost everyone has a cell phone, so you have a lot of potential data points, and you can track data almost anywhere on the whole (road) system," said Valerie Briggs, program manager for transportation operations at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
But the tracking doesn't rely on the GPS that has been installed in almost every cell phone.
Instead, it takes the frequent signals that wireless phones send to towers and follows the movement of the phones from one tower to another. Then it overlays that data with highway maps to determine where the phones are and how fast they are moving.
Of course, there's no reason on Earth to believe the government when they say that they will only analyze aggregate data, or that they will only use that data for traffic control. The state routinely utilizes cell phones to bust people. Channel 4 News in Detroit reports that police used cell phone calls to arrest a man accused of breaking into several cars: "Andrew Soper was taken into custody after investigators traced calls he allegedly made on a stolen cell phone, according to the Ann Arbor News."

Similarly, the Rockford Register claims that police apprehended a man wanted in an assault through a cell phone he left at the scene of the crime.
While police were talking to the victim, a cellular phone on the ground began ringing. The caller ID displayed a number registered in the phone’s contacts under “home.”

Police radioed the phone number to the communication center, which traced it to a residence in the 2700 block of Sewell Street where police located Lingelbach and Aaron R. Clarke, 19.
And the San Mateo County Times is running a story about a man, James Daggs, arrested after dropping a cell phone during a robbery.
When no one claimed the phone after a week, a police detective removed the battery to determine the serial number in order to trace the phone's owner. After obtaining a search warrant, the detective learned from the telephone company that the owner was Daggs' brother, who said he had given Daggs the phone four months earlier.
And the cell phone has made it easier than ever to be a rat. The Lake County Reporter's police blotter for 10/13 carries a story of a cell phone user following a drunken driver and phoning his location in to police.

One more important note for criminals. The Houston Chronical reports that Finnish researchers have developed a cell phone that can tell the way you walk from any one else. This is for your protection, it turns out.
"A device is equipped with sensors that measure certain characteristics of the user's gait. When the device is used for the first time, these measurements are saved in its memory," VTT said in a statement.

The gadget would monitor the user's walking style and check it against the saved information. If the values differ, the user would have to enter a password.
You can bet that the police will subpoena that information as well, just to make sure it was you carrying your phone when you torched that police car. And good luck cross-examining a cell phone.

It's important to realize the way that the cell phone also has begun to operate as an ID, for many purposes. It contains so much information that even physical possession of the device can reveal much to police or other interested parties. In fact, the devices are beginning to merge with credit cards, and some cell phone users can now use them to make purchases.

Meanwhile, WSAV News 3 reports that Chatham County, Georgia, is upgrading to a new 911 system that can report on a caller's location to within 30 yards. "If I don't know where you are it's just over it's done," said Chatham County dispatcher Jina Fields. One wonders how we managed to get by before this technology? Did we all die terrible deaths without cell phone tracking? Statements like Fields provide an example of the way that technology, rather than empowering us, has in fact infantilized us.

Authorities use our relative independence from tracking by the state or capitalism as a justification for intervention. Bizarrely, our independence or non-integration into the system is treated as a weakness. And then that integration causes dependence, as anyone who has lost their cell phone can attest to. Have you ever faced the dilemma of needing to make a call from your dead cell phone without being able to use someone else's because you can't access the number in your dead phone? Your memory has been transfered to the phone and when it doesn't work, yours doesn't either.

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