Nov 21, 2014

    Mobile-phone tracking set to become more precise


    MOBILE-PHONE tracking is about to go vertical as the location-services industry, prodded by the United States government, solves the riddle of what experts call "the z vector". It will soon be possible to determine not only what building you and your phone are in, but also whether you are on the first or 15th floor.

    One key is the rapid spread of barometric-pressure sensors, which have become standard features in Apple's iPhone 6 and several Android devices. More than 100 million of these smartphones are already in the hands of consumers, capable of taking air-pressure readings that can be used to estimate a user's altitude, to within a few feet.

    The systems, though now used mainly for apps that users control, are part of a new generation of location technology that could collect altitude data from phones and use it to, for example, help rescue crews find people trapped in a building on fire.

    But privacy advocates warn that detectives, intelligence agencies and maybe hackers could gain the ability to map the three-dimensional movements of mobile-phone users with startling new detail.

    An early glimpse at this tension is playing out at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is updating its requirements for how wireless carriers handle 911 calls. In a proposal that could be adopted as soon as January, the FCC would require wireless carriers to build more precise location systems capable of finding callers anywhere, even in a multistorey building.

    "This puts those of us in the civil liberties community in a difficult position of opposing the creation of location services for emergency services, because we know the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will ask for it later and we don't have the power to stop them," said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union.

    The FBI declined to comment on the location rules under consideration by the FCC, but the bureau's own investigative guidelines say it can seek access to any information supplied to other government agencies.