Thursday, March 03, 2011

Beijing to track mobile users

Within days of Hosni Mubarak's downfall, Beijing had rounded up political dissidents, increased online censorship and swamped areas of the city with security forces to prevent any form of protest manifesting itself.

Key words ranging from Egypt, Jasmine, revolution, and Wangfujing were blocked on China's homegrown microblogging sites, a clear sign that Beijing saw no "dictator's dilemma" in their attempts to control the Internet, something which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had alluded to in a speech on Internet freedom.

But in a bid to control the movements of its citizens and keep a watchful eye on the population, Beijing is rolling out more draconian initiatives that will make many people shudder with fear.

Real-time tracking

The project, called the Information Platform of Real-time Citizen Movement, aims to watch over more than 20 million people in Beijing 24 hours a day.

Li Guoguang, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission, speaking to the Beijing Daily said the project would be used only to ease traffic jams. However, coming soon after calls for protests in towns and cities across China, it is likely that the new measures are a way to detect any unusual gathering of a large number of people.

Both main mobile services, China Unicom and China Telecom, are involved in the project, using triangulation and GPS to track people's movements.

Chen Derong , professor of wireless communications at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, said mobile positioning technology was based on a simple theory of radio communication. A mobile phone constantly beams out signals to radio receivers built by service providers. Each radio wave arrives with different timing, and by calculating these differences, the service provider can pin down the location of an active phone.

"Beijing's plan is to integrate the three different mobile service providers into one platform so that everyone with a powered-on cell phone can be tracked," Chen said. And he acknowledged the tracking could be used for more than just traffic control. "Certainly the use of the platform will not be limited to gathering traffic information. Officials in other areas, such as anti-terrorism and stability maintenance, will also find it useful." [SCMP]

Data tracking elsewhere

It is not just China that has the ability of tracking its citizens. Recently in Germany a politician managed to secure data from his mobile provider which showed that a large amount of data was stored concerning his whereabouts and mobile activity.

German politician Malte Spitz managed to receive six months worth of data from Germany's largest telecommunication company Deutsche Telekom. He forwarded the information to Zeit Online, a German newspaper, which used the information to create a detailed tracking profile of the last six month of the politician [Ghacks].

The amount of data collected, and stored, raised eyebrows for freedom advocates. The data included geolocation information, Internet activities like Twitter messages, blog postings, SMS messages and phone calls. Zeit Online used the information in conjunction with Google Maps to provide an interactive timeline which showed Spitz' movements over the course of six months. It gives a disturbing if insightful view of how modern technology can be used to track individuals.

Different countries have different rules concerning the amount of data which may be stored by a mobile subscriber, and there are further concerns as regards how much data ISPs collect.

Of course telecommunications companies have long retained data, though governments and law enforcement departments rarely seek that data unless a serious crime has been committed. In Britain for example Stuart Campbell's conviction for the murder of niece Dannielle Jones was secured partially due to forensic authorship analysis of text messages sent on the victim's mobile phone.

Mobile Switching Center records demonstrated that Campbell's alibi of being at a D-I-Y store half an hour away in Rayleigh, Essex was false, and that Campbell's and Jones's mobile phones had been within the range of a single mobile phone mast at the time that a text message had allegedly been sent by Jones to Campbell. This along with forensic authorship analysis indicated that Campbell had written the message, not Jones, implying that Campbell had sent the message to himself using Jones's phone to make it appear that she was still alive.

Beyond the solving of serious criminal activity, many governments shy away from monitoring its citizens too closely for fear of being accused of totalitarian interference in people's lives.

Such criticisms are less of a threat to countries like China however. It is unclear whether the new data monitoring will extend beyond basic tracking and how authorities will respond if they see something they are uncomfortable with.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

1 comment:

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