Cellular group spurns FBI tracking

An FBI proposal that would require cellular network operators to pinpoint the location of subscribers and notify law enforcement officers has been rejected by a telecom industry group.

CNET News staff
2 min read
The FBI has stumbled in its bid to track the location of cell phone users.

The Telecommunications Industry Association Thursday voted to reject an FBI proposal that would require cellular network operators to pinpoint the location of subscribers and notify law enforcement officers. The services would be required to provide location changes within 1/500 of a second, even when the phone is powered up but not in use.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a privacy watchdog group, charges the FBI with "demanding that every cell phone double as a tracking device," and applauded the industry group for denying the FBI proposal.

The committee that voted down the FBI proposal is implementing a controversial federal wiretap bill that passed in October 1994. "The FBI wasn't supposed to get tracking under the wiretap law," said Jerry Berman, CDT executive director. "They were only supposed to get traditional wiretap ability."

FBI officials deny that they were out of bounds. The agency contends that the location of a phone is a standard part of "call setup information," which can be obtained with a "trap-and-trace" order. It's possible to pinpoint a cell phone's location within ten meters using a method called triangulation, according to Mark Weiser, chief technologist for Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

CDT officials counter, however, that just because something is possible doesn't make it right. The CDT is concerned because trap-and-trace subpoenas can be issued without the approval of a judge because they don't actually let officials listen in on a conversation.

For their part, cellular industry officials said they felt squeezed, politically and financially. "The FBI has said that any company that doesn't comply gets fined $10,000 per day for doing something the Congress hasn't sanctioned," said Jim Ayers, vice president of communications for the Cellular Telephone Industry Association. "We're really stuck between Congress and the FBI."

As part of the original agreement that pushed the wiretap bill through Congress, Ayers said that FBI Director Louis Freeh had pledged that the law wouldn't be used to track cell phone locations.

The CDT also criticized the FBI for allegedly trying to skirt the democratic process by holding their meetings behind closed doors and not releasing the text of the Electronic Surveillance Interface publicly. Berman said the FBI was attempting to specify technical standards although the wiretap law had specifically delegated this role to the TIA.

The FBI denies this charge. "The bureau's position is that we are trying to give guidance into new technologies because it's less costly and not technically difficult to put in the monitoring capability up front. It's basically cost-neutral compared to retrofitting the existing capability," said FBI special agent Jim Margolin.