Monitoring cell phones

Monday, October 17, 2005

We all know cell phones are handy, sometimes in unforeseen ways. In London, police tracked down a suspect in the recent failed suicide bombings by running down his cell phone records and tracing him to his brother's flat near Rome.

Now the Missouri Department of Transportation proposes to have private companies monitor motorists' cell phones as a means of tracking traffic patterns. The information would be sent to Web sites and electronic road signs providing motorists with information about alternative routes when congestion arises.

Fears that Big Brother is crowding us are unfounded, MoDOT director Pete Rahn assures. He insists the information about cell phone movement would remain anonymous.

The Missouri cell-phone monitoring project would be the largest in the country. Much smaller attempts to use similar technology are under way in Norfolk, Va., and along Interstate 75 near Atlanta.

It works by tracking signals from wireless phones to towers and following the phone's movement from one tower to another. This information is overlaid on highway maps to decipher the location of the phones and the speed they are moving.

The plan expects the contractor to market some of the information to the private sector, including media outlets providing traffic reports, cell phone companies and automakers offering onboard navigation systems,.

Those who are concerned about the project worry that it is a step toward the loss of privacy. For instance, would this information eventually be used to catch speeders? Tracking the speed and location of a mass of phones is one thing. Privacy advocates can be forgiven for wondering when some government agency will decide it needs to know exactly where your phone has been.

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