Deciding which mobile phone to bug and how: The incredible flip side of the growth of mobiles

I use the word incredible in the sense of difficult to believe or extraordinary.

In one of the most revealing and interesting articles I’ve read in a while, the London Review of Books looks into the world of mobile phone surveillance. It begins with the example of in the UK, a freely available service (one of many as a quick Google search reveals) that can be used to track the movements of a mobile phone. A related BBC report by Click Online presenter Spencer Kelly notes how easy it is to circumvent the security protocol associated with a phone that is to be tracked.

While I’ve repeatedly mentioned on this blog that social networking linked to proximity thresholds on mobiles could be a killer app in densely populated areas (megacities), the potential of using the same technology to monitor movements and track people is no longer the domain of science fiction or films like Enemy of the State.

But what’s interesting about the LRB article is not this. It is highlighting the Intelligence Support Systems industry (ISS) industry, growing by leaps and bounds, and its links with and interest in the mobile phone and telecoms companies. And the question is poses is a fascinating one,

…identify targets for LI (that’s ‘lawful intercept’) in the first place: it’s a cinch to bug someone, but how do you help a law enforcement agency decide who to bug?

The way ISS companies go about doing this is worth quoting in full,

To help answer that question, companies like ThorpeGlen (and VASTech and Kommlabs and Aqsacom) sell systems that carry out ‘passive probing’, analysing vast quantities of communications data to detect subjects of potential interest to security services, thereby doing their expensive legwork for them. ThorpeGlen’s VP of sales and marketing showed off one of these tools in a ‘Webinar’ broadcast to the ISS community on 13 May. He used as an example the data from ‘a mobile network we have access to’ – since he chose not to obscure the numbers we know it’s Indonesia-based – and explained that calls from the entire network of 50 million subscribers had been processed, over a period of two weeks, to produce a database of eight billion or so ‘events’. Everyone on a network, he said, is part of a group; most groups talk to other groups, creating a spider’s web of interactions. Of the 50 million subscribers ThorpeGlen processed, 48 million effectively belonged to ‘one large group’: they called one another, or their friends called friends of their friends; this set of people was dismissed. A further 400,000 subscriptions could be attributed to a few large ‘nodes’, with numbers belonging to call centres, shops and information services. The remaining groups ranged in size from two to 142 subscribers. Members of these groups only ever called each other – clear evidence of antisocial behaviour – and, in one extreme case, a group was identified in which all the subscribers only ever called a single number at the centre of the web. This section of the ThorpeGlen presentation ended with one word: ‘WHY??’

I’m hugely ambivalent about this sort of power. The bona fides of all telecoms companies in Sri Lanka, and many other countries with regimes more interested in control and containment than democracy, are already suspect. Governments themselves often conveniently confuse anti-terrorism and the post 9/11 war on terror with legitimate dissent on human rights abuses. Together, the worst of telcos and illiberal regimes have a degree of control over movements and communications that, given our dependence on the web, Internet and mobile communications, is unprecendented in human history. I have always thought that Burma was exceedingly foolish to cut off all communications during and in response to the Saffron Revolution. A more sophisticated regime would have simply tracked all the communications, taking a page from China, and then targetted nodes (indviduals and groups) who were responsible for most of the information generation.

ThorpeGlen’s technology makes this easy to do and I doubt very much that they have ethical guidelines (or frankly even a remote interest in human rights) that will prevent them from selling their product to regimes not known for their support of democracy. The capabilities of the system are astounding – able to track multiple SIMs, handsets and devices and remind me of the Semantic Navigator that I toyed around with in the early days of implementing Groove Virtual Office to support the One Text process in Sri Lanka.

Identifying and profiling targets. Click for larger image.
Identifying and profiling targets. Click for larger image.

On the other hand, this technology is here and being further developed. There’s no wishing it away and governments are openly talking about ways to break even themost secure mobile communications channels. Commercial variants are indubitably going to be useful in humanitarian aid and peace related work – to help with location and situational awareness on the ground and complement other technologies such as mobile video, offering real time, immersive updates from the field with little or no user interaction.

A committed interest in combatting terrorism and creating better systems to manage disaster aid work makes it difficult to not get animated by and support these technologies. On the other hand, I am worried about the capabilities of these systems used by governments to hunt what becomes an evolving definition of terrorists and terrorism which soon includes those like myself who are openly critical of the gross abuse of human rights and media freedom by a regime in Sri Lanka hell-bent on a total war to the detriment of democracy.

Many of us are already under surveillance. It’s difficult from where I am to be optimistic about this sort of technology used more as a tool to promote democracy over self-serving wars against terrorism, but I take this as a challenge for all peacebuilders who increasingly use ICTs. Technology after all, is and was never neutral. Our challenge is to use what we have access to pursue our goals, which are strangely yet inextricably entwined with those of the ISS industry.

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