30 JANUARY 2002

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Mobile telephony tracking you down

Marika Azzopardi

It has been recently announced that Malta has a new mobile phone tracking system which can be used to track down people and vehicles. This is a system whereby people carrying a specialised mobile phone could be traced down to their exact location, making this an ideal tool for companies who own a fleet of vehicles which require supervision or close contact with base.

In large countries such as the US, these systems are very desirable in order to speed up reaction times to distress calls. However in Switzerland, police have been secretly tracking down mobile phone users through a telephone company computer. Although it has been claimed that such action only follows the production of a court order, the system is undoubtedly a very efficient investigative tool. British intelligence groups use technical surveillance in concentrated efforts to track down key individuals. Inherently mobile telephony equipment can provide some degree of localisation, which will become more accurate with future technologies.

There is no current requirement for the mobile operators in Malta to provide such a service but this could be reviewed as necessary in the future. The Malta Communications Authority (MTA) confirmed that the service being offered by the local company operates in a specific manner. The service works through one of the local mobile operators and involves the use of special mobile phone handsets that incorporate a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. This enables accurate and precise positioning information to be sent to a central location. So localisation services cannot today be offered or implemented using a standard GSM, since persons being tracked down would own a specialised handset, and would be aware of its functions.

The protection of one's privacy is an important issue and it is the purpose of the recently published Data Protection Act to achieve this. The Malta Communications authority (MCA) is duty bound to ensure that local operators safeguard and protect the privacy and confidentiality of customer information. In other words, information regarding a client’s movements should not be divulged unless consent is previously given by the client. However the MCA also claims that it is not its role to regulate companies adopting such tracking systems. Its role is only limited to imposing set obligations.

Walking around with a mobile phone is like carrying a beeper on one’s person, and while a call is in progress it is possible to be tracked down with standard radio tracking techniques. Companies abroad use this method for billing and marketing purposes. Base stations pick up signals emitted by mobile sets, reconstruct routes and pinpoint the whereabouts of phone users. However localising calls can only be limited to the whereabouts of the caller and these may span an area from one square kilometre in urban areas to a much wider space span where base stations are more distant from each other.


The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt