FBI phone tapping and locating cell phones making 911 calls: Is it privacy or paranoia?

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FBI phone tapping and locating cell phones making 911 calls: Is it privacy or paranoia?

For all you kids out there who don't like scary stories, turn the set off now. I'm about to tell you of a monster that's coming this year. And the scariest thing is you can't hide. In October a Federal Communications Commission requirement goes into effect that states emergency services must be able to locate all 911 calls placed from a cell phone to within 100 yards. The FCC calls this new service e911, with the E standing not for emergency but for enhanced. Enhanced has a solid, high-tech spin to it.

For your information, last year 911 received approximately 150 million calls, of which 45 million were from wireless phones, according to Scott Petronis at MapInfo, in Troy, N.Y.

The question, as always, is whether the government is a benevolent or malevolent monster that in this case will use location-based technology to track your whereabouts. The answer? I don't know.

Certainly Uncle Sam has been in the news a great deal of late regarding its various high-tech surveillance operations, Carnivore and Echelon, for example.

Carnivore is the e-mail and Web surfing surveillance application used by government agencies to track bad guys. Echelon is the supposed worldwide surveillance satellite system that monitors calls, listening for key words and phrases such as "bomb," "kill the president," "nerve gas," and so forth.

And recently the FBI requested permission from the FCC to use, among other things, dialed digit extraction technology. Here's how it works: If you are on your cell phone and accessing your bank using touch tones to punch in an account number, the FBI wants to be able to intercept that information under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA).

The wireless industry took that FBI request to court; the courts ruled with the industry and against the FBI. At this point, any information passed via the phone that is not the phone number and location is not available to law enforcement agencies without a court order.

Using today's technology, information passes in random encoded packets; someone intercepting a data transmission would not be able to tell what is in each packet until all the packets were decoded. It is all or nothing. So in the interests of privacy, the courts said it shall be nothing, according to Travis Larsen, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

Starting in October, cell phone manufacturers, working in partnership with the wireless network providers, will include the technology -- there are a number of ways this can be done -- to locate you within that 100-yard radius as long as your cell phone is turned on. This information is supposed to be accessed only if you dial 911.

The selling of location-based services will be the subject of another Wireless World column.

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