Technology that can track your cellphone


  • Technology
  • Wednesday, 15 Dec 2010

By TAN KIT HOONG intech@thestar.com.my

PETALING JAYA: “Big Brother” is watching you, but sometimes that may not be such a bad thing, and especially when it has to do with keeping us safe.

A company called TruePosition is shopping around a technology that can effectively track mobile phones with an accuracy of within 50m — whether the phone has a GPS chip or not. Wherever there’s a cellphone signal, TruePosition’s technology can track a phone or any number of phones.

This handphone-location technology works in a similar manner to GPS (global positioning system), in that it relies on multilateration, which figures out where the device is by how proximate the device is to several known points — but in this case, instead of using GPS satellites, TruePosition relies on cellular service towers.

Using what’s known as Uplink Time Difference of Arrival (U-TDOA), the TruePosition system measures how long it takes the signal emitted by the mobile phone to reach a cell tower. With this distance information obtained from several towers, a very high level of accuracy can be obtained to pinpoint the location of the cellphone in question.

“In my presentations I always bring up the movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, where cellphone location is used. This isn’t science fiction but actually works,” said Brian Varano, director of marketing for TruePositon.

While this may sound ominous to some (including privacy advocates), the technology actually has applications in search and rescue operations, as well as national security applications.

For example, in the case of an earthquake, search and rescue teams can use the technology to find the locations of victims trapped under rubble, if they have their mobile phones switched on and with them.

In the case of kidnapping victims, the police could track down the location of the kidnappers if they make ransom calls from a cellphone.

According to Varano, the technology has wide applications in “homeland security” (or national security as we call it here), where the company’s tracking technology could be used to identify and track a group of terrorists engaged in criminal activity.

“Cellphones are now one of the main methods terrorists use for communication with each other. Cellphones can even be used as remote detonators for bombs as well,” said Varano.

In such a case, governments utilising the technology can also monitor cellphones for certain keywords and once those turn up, can track the phone using TruePosition’s technology.

Each call made from the phone links the caller to another person and from there to another and another -- in this way, a terrorist cell could be identified, Varano said.

Apart from the tracking of handphones, the technology can be used to set up what’s called a “geofence,” where a certain building — or area around a building — is outlined with a virtual fence that only allows those with known, registered phones to enter.

Those with unregistred phones who enter this area will immediately set off a security alert, or be flagged by a computer system.

Besides protecting high-security buildings, Varano said the system is also being used to enhance border-security systems in remote areas.

TruePosition’s technology can track particular mobile phones based on the IMSI (or the International Mobile Subscriber Identity) information stored on the SIM card, or the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) information stored on the phone’s hardware.

For the location technology to work, Varano said, specialised equipment needs to be installed at each cellular service tower — many countries, such as the United States and Spain, already have such equipment installed.

Varano added that no Asian countries currently utilise TruePosition’s technology, although several nations in the region are looking into it.

For more information, check out TruePosition’s website at trueposition.com.

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