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Molly Walker Need Not Apply
July 18, 2007 10:42 AM   Subscribe

WIRED: A cell mobile phone helped police find the body of missing student Kelly Nolan. "The average citizen is not aware that they are carrying a location-tracking device in their pocket..."
posted by chuckdarwin (51 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am. I was, however, unaware of this (ebaumsworld/youtube link)
posted by Debaser626 at 10:51 AM on July 18, 2007


Coincidentally, this just popped up on the Make Magazine blog. If mobile phones are already location-tracking devices, what's that guy doing? Or can you only get the tracking info if you have a subpoena or a last name in the set {Bush, Cheney}? (From the third link, it sounds like the last one.)
posted by DU at 10:51 AM on July 18, 2007


it stopped being a mobile phone after its owner was murdered and stopped moving around, but it was still a cell phone even after that.
posted by bruce at 10:52 AM on July 18, 2007 [4 favorites]


It stops being a location tracking device when the battery dies or is turned off.
posted by birdherder at 10:56 AM on July 18, 2007


I know about it, I'm just a little peeved that I can't find a subscription-free GPS program to go with my pocket tracking device.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:10 AM on July 18, 2007


there are several public services in the UK that can track GSM mobiles purely using the GSM network (a quick google) -- the owner needs to grant permission first via SMS and gets regular notifications, but still...

Regarding 'The average citizen' not knowing that networks are aware of where mobiles are ... How the hell do they think that incomming calls reach them? Magic?
posted by nielm at 11:10 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Jesus, kinda a thin post. Blurbs from Wired and MSNBC and a not-too-informative piece on GPS phones? You know that there is supposed to be some content, not just links, right?
posted by klangklangston at 11:12 AM on July 18, 2007


What the hell is the deal with cellphone makers putting GPS chips in their phones, but not allowing people to actually see where they are?

Regarding 'The average citizen' not knowing that networks are aware of where mobiles are ... How the hell do they think that incomming calls reach them? Magic?

They are not aware of the fact that most cellphones now include a GPS chip that will track their location to within 100 meters (by law) and probably within 10 or 20 or so. Were you aware of that?
posted by delmoi at 11:13 AM on July 18, 2007


Technically, most of our ID badges have a chips inside that can tell where an employee has been or is. Similiar to the badges worn by the Star Trek characters who asked the ship's computer to locate a person.
posted by doctorschlock at 11:19 AM on July 18, 2007


The Nokia N95 has useable GPS.

As regards governmental tracking via mobile phone, if I didn't want to be tracked I'd take the battery out.
posted by knapah at 11:19 AM on July 18, 2007


*ahem* ...badges have chips inside..
posted by doctorschlock at 11:20 AM on July 18, 2007


You're right, klang. I may have rushed to post this a little after my deletion double debacle yesterday.
posted by chuckdarwin at 11:21 AM on July 18, 2007


I want a badger with a chip inside.
posted by everichon at 11:25 AM on July 18, 2007


it stopped being a mobile phone after its owner was murdered and stopped moving around, but it was still a cell phone even after that.

*sees pedantry and raises it with further pedantry* Well, it's still capable of moving or of being moved. Or does the phone in my pocket stop being a mobile phone every time I sit down?

posted by greycap at 11:25 AM on July 18, 2007


Btw, with this thing you can embed a GSM phone, with GPS in any piece of electronics. How sweet is that?

If you have to turn the phone off and take out the battery, in order to disable tracking, how useful is that? It would make more sense to carry a small GPS signal jammer with you. That way, you could make and receive phone calls without having your exact location tracked.
posted by delmoi at 11:29 AM on July 18, 2007


"How the hell do they think that incomming calls reach them? Magic?
posted by nielm at 2:10 PM on July 18"

They think they are radios receiving a broadcast from a tower, which they are. The system just needs to know which tower covers you (or gives you the best coverage given traffic, etc). Towers can have coverage radii of anywhere from 1 to 10 miles. This doesn't require GPS. Rather they triangulate your position with towers.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:31 AM on July 18, 2007


Just in case the "I've got nothing to hide" argument rears up:
http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/07/10/2054219
posted by malaprohibita at 11:33 AM on July 18, 2007


This is exactly why I keep my mobile phone completely wrapped in aluminum foil. They will never track me!

Funny though. Ever since I started, no one seems to call me anymore.
posted by quin at 11:36 AM on July 18, 2007


This is exactly why I stopped using my cell phone.

Not really, I just don't have many situations where I'd be better off with a cellphone anymore.
posted by drezdn at 11:43 AM on July 18, 2007


greycap: "*sees pedantry and raises it with further pedantry* Well, it's still capable of moving or of being moved. Or does the phone in my pocket stop being a mobile phone every time I sit down?"

There's no such thing as a stationary object. All phones are moving in relation to the center of the galaxy. And at a remarkable speed.

posted by Plutor at 11:44 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've used this data frequently to help locate missing persons. The last tower their phone checked in with is usually the most valuable information leading to their position, esp. when it contradicts all of the other clues as it often does.

I wasn't aware of these "stealth" gps chips, but most cellphones in operation today do not have such a device. The thinking behind limiting access to such data is probably privacy motivated. At this point, it is difficult to get information from the phone provider and requires law enforcement participation.

I ordered a palm 755p from Sprint the other day, and, if I'm not mistaken, the operator was trying to upsell me some sort of location-based service. I assumed that this was based on cell tower access, and the 755p is not on the list of gps enabled devices. This guy thinks that this is the next big thing for the web. and Bruce Sterling has been talking about the "Hyperlocal" future for a long time.
posted by Manjusri at 11:49 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


[Completely off topic]

I always thought it would be cool to see some kind of sci-fi weapon that could pin something in space; to actually lock it relative to the center of the galaxy. When it was hit, it would appear to go shooting off into space at unfathomable velocities.

posted by quin at 11:52 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


it stopped being a mobile phone after its owner was murdered and stopped moving around


There may have been some twitching though.
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:57 AM on July 18, 2007


After watching the movie 16 Blocks, I was telling my wife (a 9-1-1 dispatcher) about one scene I found absurd:

me: So the bad cop calls dispatch and asks them to track the hero using his cellphone. God I hate movies that don't understand how technology works.

her: But...we can do that.

me: No, no, no. They're watching a little computer screen in the dispatch room, see, and following a red dot that's supposed to be Bruce Willis. Come on!

her: Yeah, it's not quite like that but pretty close.

me: They had it down to a one block radius.

her: Yup.

me: But he wasn't even on the phone, it was in his pocket.

her: Mmhmm.

me: [pause] Jesus.

her: I know.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 12:04 PM on July 18, 2007 [4 favorites]


File this under the "This is nothing new" heading.

Wen i worked for AT&T Wireless, we got a bunch of complaints about their new "Find your Friends" feature that gave you information about other folks based on the cell tower information.

I left shortly after it was introduced, and I don't think it ever got very far anyway.
posted by drstein at 12:04 PM on July 18, 2007


Is this something you would have to use a mobile phone to know about?
posted by oaf at 12:17 PM on July 18, 2007


"Is this something you would have to use a mobile phone to know about?"

No, it's something you would have to use a mobile phone for Them to know about.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:36 PM on July 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


What's this business with removing the battery? Is there some evidence that the majority of phones are still significantly active (ie, communicating with cell towers) when manually powered down - not put in standby?
posted by unmake at 12:39 PM on July 18, 2007


I'll bite. Who is Molly Walker?
posted by sidereal at 12:39 PM on July 18, 2007


MetaFilter: sees pedantry and raises it with further pedantry
posted by MtDewd at 12:48 PM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


What the hell is the deal with cellphone makers putting GPS chips in their phones, but not allowing people to actually see where they are?

Very few phones have an actual chip. They may have software that helps the network triangulate the location of the phone, but there's currently no protocol for getting that information back to the handset (though some phone networks let you load a map of your current location over WAP, for a charge).
posted by cillit bang at 12:53 PM on July 18, 2007


I guess Molly Walker has the ability to find people, but I think it's something you need to have a TV to know about.
posted by MtDewd at 12:55 PM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


"How the hell do they think that incomming calls reach them? Magic?"

Considering this, or this, probably so.
posted by 2sheets at 1:02 PM on July 18, 2007


Regarding 'The average citizen' not knowing that networks are aware of where mobiles are ... How the hell do they think that incomming calls reach them? Magic?

Not for nothing, but The Average Citizen also loves Paris Hilton and thinks Doritos are the greatest thing Mexico has ever produced.
posted by tracert at 1:11 PM on July 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


To comply with FCC requirements, cell phone carriers decided to integrate GPS technology into cell phone handsets, rather than overhaul the tower network.

My dad was trying to convince me of this the other day… that all mobile phones have secret GPS chips that the user can't access.

Just to be clear, I'm 99% sure that this is not true. The phone companies can track your location, but the technology they use is not GPS, unless you specifically get a phone with GPS features.
posted by designbot at 1:24 PM on July 18, 2007


unmake: I don't know the answer to your exact question, but as someone who's written code for a cellphone before, I do know that the OFF button is just another key on the keyboard, not a switch in the power circuit. Your cellphone contains a general-purpose computer CPU. It could certainly turn itself back on without giving you any indication that it had done so. It's a "simple matter of software".

It's best to think of your cellphone as a computer, a radio, and a microphone (among other things) under software control. What can they do with that? Anything you can't stop them from doing. For example, with the right software (and enough memory) your phone could record all your conversations during the day and then transmit them to a phone company server at night, while you're asleep.

If I really didn't want to be tracked, I'd leave the cellphone at home. If you remove the battery, how do you know that there's not a secret internal battery that would provide enough power to periodically sample and store the GPS position for later transmission? I guess you could put the phone in a Faraday cage. If you have to take it with you, that's probably the best bet. Just hope it doesn't have accelerometers for inertial navigation (which are available as integrated micromachinery on silicon chips).
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:50 PM on July 18, 2007 [5 favorites]


You can track your kids too.
posted by caddis at 2:57 PM on July 18, 2007


If you have a cellular phone made after 2006 it carries a GPS chip. It's the law.
posted by IronLizard at 3:01 PM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Or if you are a sprint customer you can track your kids as well. (Disclaimer, I work on that product)
posted by aspo at 3:07 PM on July 18, 2007


E911 isn't necessarily implemented using GPS, much less always-on GPS, as it's somewhat of a battery hog.
posted by blasdelf at 3:17 PM on July 18, 2007


I don't recall anybody telling the wannabe cheater in AskMeta yesterday that maybe her fiance had a GPS tracker in her car and would find out about her project in real time. But then, with the MetaTalk thread the whole thing turned into an epic and maybe that is in there somewhere.
posted by bukvich at 3:39 PM on July 18, 2007


Yes, but many of those of us who ain't dead yet don't want to carry tracking devices around, even though we ain't doin' nothin' illegal.

Then again, I'm too hard-of-hearing to use a regular phone easily, let alone a cell. And as my IP number shows I'm easy enough to track already: I seldom leave home now that I've got one.
posted by davy at 4:12 PM on July 18, 2007


Just in case anyone gives a fuck, I'd like to say that this is worth my $5.

You guys rock; this is a great little thread.

Cheers.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:19 PM on July 18, 2007


Molly Walker is indeed a character from Heroes who can track anyone.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:20 PM on July 18, 2007


E911 isn't necessarily implemented using GPS, much less always-on GPS, as it's somewhat of a battery hog.

It wasn't in 1999, but it is now. The GPS doesn't need to be on all the time, it's activated by the network or the phone on an as-needed basis.
posted by IronLizard at 5:48 PM on July 18, 2007


Your cellphone contains a general-purpose computer CPU. It could certainly turn itself back on without giving you any indication that it had done so. It's a "simple matter of software".

Mine does that. It turned itself off overnight, due to lack of power, and then my alarm (set on the cellphone) went off.

I opened up the phone as usual, pressed a button, and then the screen, bright featureless white with a blue dialog box, asked, "Turn on phone?" ... as though being mostly-asleep wasn't already disorienting enough.
posted by blacklite at 6:46 PM on July 18, 2007


Is this something that I would have to read the article to know about?
posted by LarryC at 7:30 PM on July 18, 2007


As I said above, I work on software like this. A bit more information (for people in the US):

1. Some phones use AGPS, some use real GPS, some use triangulation. It tends to vary by the provider.

2. There are generally two ways to initiate location. The easiest is for an application on the phone to request location, however some carriers can initiate the location request remotely.

3. Cell companies (at least in the us) are being justly paranoid about security. I don't know how they deal with legal requests (I suspect it requires a supeona) but rest assured Joe random can't write an application that locates cell phones, and even if a company does get permission to write an application that locates phones, there still are pretty strict limits on who can locate.

4. When you have line of sight to the sky (or even just a single story, or near a window) the location is scary accurate. Within 10-20 meters is reasonable.

5. There has been some legal precedent that says admitting cell location in court requires a warrant. That includes cell location as well as GPS. Take that as you may.
posted by aspo at 7:46 PM on July 18, 2007


We've discussed this previously.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:35 PM on July 18, 2007


E911 isn't necessarily implemented using GPS, much less always-on GPS, as it's somewhat of a battery hog.

Back in the day, I would totally agree with you. My GPS unit from 2000- 2001 could go through a pair of AA batteries in less than 2 hours. And that was with a black and white, non-pixelated LCD.

My new Garmin gets 36 hours constant run time, and that's with a color mapping LCD with the back light on, from the same two AA batteries.

I would have little doubt that they could throw a GPS chip into most phones nowadays and no one would notice the power-drain. Especially if it used a pulse system where it only locked on once a minute or so.
posted by quin at 9:18 PM on July 18, 2007


Analysis puts phone in proximity to O'Reilly home. If you're gonna murder your wife, switch off your phone first, it would seem.
posted by kersplunk at 4:02 AM on July 19, 2007


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