Keeping us safe the Sprint way

Mark Gibbs wonders about why we don't want to be monitored yet when we are monitored we don't care too much.

I don't think anyone, at least anyone rational and not on medication, would argue that the majority of us don't want to have to defend ourselves against bad guys. That, my friends, is why we have the police force, the military, the FBI, the CIA and a score of other agencies that in one way or another are tasked with keeping us safe.

And there's no doubt that the job of keeping us safe has become progressively tougher over the last few decades. Not only are there more of us (some 300 million at the last count), but we have become a more mobile society (cars that are more reliable, better roads, more willingness to relocate for work and so on) and we also communicate more often and over multiple channels (telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, texting, cell phones, microblogging … the list has become enormous).

This, in turn, means that finding someone "of interest" and then tracking their whereabouts has become much more difficult than it used to be.

To address the challenges of a more mobile and connected society, it is therefore logical that we should look to the various technologies that got us into this situation. But it turns out that there are some aspects of using these technologies for managing public order that we just won't accept.

For example, to enforce the speed limits few of us obey, we could legislate to have transponders installed in every vehicle so speeding could be easily detected and punished. After all, driving is defined as a social privilege and not a right. So, if we believe and agree that speed kills then surely we would do something about it. No?

Well, actually, the answer is no, we don't. We put in those ridiculously expensive cameras at intersections to trap people jumping lights and accept that as necessary for public order, yet monitoring people's driving speeds by instrumenting their cars or the highway is just not acceptable.

But what's interesting is that most citizens are against this kind of monitoring while, at the same time, they don't seem to care about other more nefarious monitors that are used to watch their behavior on the assumption they might be bad guys.

Consider, for example, Sprint. It has just come to light that Sprint Nextel cooperated with various security agencies and allowed them to locate cell phone users over 8 million times last year.  

Apparently Sprint has a secret self-service Web site where anyone with an authorized account can enter a cell number and get information on the location of the device. Now, this wasn't 8 million customers but rather 8 million 'pings' so if there were, say, 1,000 pings per enquiry then something like 8,000 customers were tracked.

It turns out that the previous estimates of how often cell phones are used to track individuals was wrong by a couple orders of magnitude.

The existence of this service was revealed, for reasons unknown, by a Sprint manager, Paul Taylor, in October at the non-public Intelligent Support Systems conference on interception and wire tapping. Taylor commented that "the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy."

What should really concern us is this is revelation is about one cell phone company and it is likely that all of the cell phone service providers have similar solutions in place.

Why should you care? Because with services like these there's a reflexive drive on the part of the security and law enforcement agencies to over-reach and do things that violate people's rights. Just consider the warrantless wiretapping that is still going on.

There is a fine line between working to maintain law and order and over-reaching, and when the likes of Sprint are all too willing to cooperate and make surveillance programs really easy to use and keeps them secret, we're obviously moving away from law and order and heading towards a controlled and monitored society that none of us should want.

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