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Monday, 14 August, 2000, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
Spy in your pocket
Nokia Phone
Video postcards can be sent with 3rd-Generation phones
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

The next generation of mobile phones will make it much easier for the police to carry out covert surveillance of citizens, say civil liberty campaigners.

They warn that the combination of location revealing technology built into the phones and rights given to the police under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act mean the owners of such phones can be watched.

They are advising people that using one of the new phones might make it hard for them to maintain their privacy.

In recognition of the implications, phone companies are planning to let people conceal where they are at the touch of a button.

Phone metre

Although existing GSM handsets can be used as location devices, they typically only give a fix to within a couple of hundred meters.

Ericsson Phone
Future phones will direct you to the nearest Indian take away
While this is good enough to tell drivers about traffic problems on the roads ahead, mobile phone companies are not using the technology for much more than this.

Accuracy can be improved if handsets are fitted with special software and the mobile phone operators adopt complementary software for their networks.

Using this technology, handsets can be pinpointed to within 50 metres of their actual position.

Newer mobile phone technologies such as the General Packet Radio Services and Universal Mobile Telecommunications Services have more accurate locating systems built in.

GPRS services are due to become widely available later this year and UMTS telephone networks are due to be switched on in 2002.

Timing triangle

Both GPRS and UMTS can locate a handset to within 15 metres by timing how long it takes packets of data to travel from different base stations to the handset.

The handset then uses this to calculate where the phone is in the area covered by the base stations.

"Service providers are going to do that calculation routinely so they can sell the data to companies that want to send you mail and messages," said Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

Often people will be happy to reveal their location and who they are, particularly if they are looking for a cash point or a good restaurant in a town they are visiting.

Many companies are keen to use this location data so they can send special offers, such as cut-price cinema tickets, to anyone walking past their doors.

Others are planning to combine location data and personal information to target people with adverts customised to match their preferences.

Privacy protection

But, said Mr Bowden, the newly passed Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act could allow for the data to be used for a more sinister purpose.

He said the RIP Act regards the information used to locate phones as "communications data" and says police do not need a warrant to obtain it.

As a result, he said, the police could use this information to conduct covert surveillance of anyone using such a phone.

Phone companies are planning to let people opt in and out of the location-based services to ensure privacy is not compromised and people are not bombarded with messages they do not want to read.

"It has always been our aim to enable the customer to decide whether or not to have his or her location sent to the network," said a spokesman for mobile service provider Orange.

But all this means is that the information is not being passed on to advertisers, said Mr Bowden.

"Whether or not you want to receive ads, the location data will be collected," he said.

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