Makers of surveillance systems are offering governments around the world the ability to track the movements of almost anybody who carries a cellphone, whether they are blocks away or on another continent.See the Post's interactive addendum to the story.
The technology works by exploiting an essential fact of all cellular networks: They must keep detailed, up-to-the-minute records on their customers’ locations to deliver calls and other services.
Surveillance systems are secretly collecting these records to map people’s travels over days, weeks or longer, according to company marketing documents and experts in surveillance technology.
The world’s most powerful intelligence services, such as the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, long have used cellphone data to track targets around the globe. But experts say these new systems allow less technically advanced governments to track people in any nation — including the U.S. — with relative ease and precision.
Users of such technology type a phone number into a computer portal, which then collects information from the location databases maintained by cellular carriers, company documents show. In this way, the surveillance system learns which cell tower a target is using, revealing his location to within a few blocks in an urban area or a few miles in a rural one.
It is unclear which governments have acquired these tracking systems, but one industry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive trade information, said that dozens of countries have bought or leased such technology in recent years. This rapid spread underscores how the burgeoning, multibillion-dollar surveillance industry makes advanced spying technology available worldwide.
One wonders: Are these services ever accessed by state and local law enforcement? In Texas? Perhaps this is another topic for the Texas Senate State Affairs to potentially consider when they meet to discuss their interim charges on electronic privacy September 16.