By Alex Dominguez The Associated Press Originally published December 17, 2004. Baltimore Sun
Whenever a cell phone is on, somebody somewhere can use it to track its owner’s movement. Investigators used that little understood fact about cell phones to punch holes in suspect Aaron Speed’s account of how he spent the morning of the fire that damaged dozens of homes at a pricey Charles County subdivision, court records show. And experts say it will be used increasingly in criminal and civil cases such as divorce where one’s whereabouts are at issue.
“They could say ‘OK, Mr. Brown your cell phone was in this hotel room at this time and date,'” said Jeff Finkelstein, president of Customer Paradigm, a Web development and privacy consulting firm in Boulder, Colo. “The information about where people are is going to be available and if the information is there, then often it’s possible to have it subpoenaed in a court of law.”In the Charles County arson case, investigators compared cell phone records to where Speed, the security guard charged in the case, said he was just before the fires started.
For example, Speed allegedly told investigators he was home in bed when a colleague phoned to tell him of the fires. But records obtained from his cell phone service showed the call went through a cell phone tower closer to the scene, court documents show. Whether we like it or not, cell phones track our movement when they are on, prompted by the need to let emergency crews know where to respond when they receive a 911 call from a cell phone, said Lara Flint, staff counsel for the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit civil liberties organization.
“It’s very much an evolving issue and one where we are starting to focus on whether reforms are needed,” Flint said. “In this case, it sounds like it was justified, but we still need to have a clear set of guidelines on when that information needs to be obtained. “Whether or not investigators use the information, cell phone companies already have it.Alexa Kaufman, a spokeswoman for Cingular, said the cell phone company has a group that deals specifically with law enforcement subpoenas.
Cell phones have been used, for example, to track down a woman who was locked in a car trunk by a kidnapper, she said. Flint said most people don’t know it but many cell phones allow the GPS function to be set to work only when 911 is dialed. However, the phone call records of which towers were used will still be available. Flint said the same laws that govern wire taps and when it is appropriate to listen in on a phone call should be used for location information.
“That’s exactly the direction we need to head with location information, especially because this going to be more and more of an issue,” Flint said. “Car navigation systems have this ability, PDAs have it. We’re heading down a path where this will be a more ubiquitous part of our daily lives.”