Can the NSA track you on your prepay mobile?

The recent news about PRISM and NSA surveillance on people based on their Internet usage and mobile usage is fascinating. The concept of being able to monitor people’s activity based on their mobile is nothing new, although of course we all thought that it would only happen under a warrant, or in emergency circumstances such as when someone makes a 911 call or perhaps in a SAR emergency.

USA 162Commercial vehicles are being tracked as a normal process, in some cases to ensure staff are working, but more commonly for more practical purposes, such as driver behaviour and safety, making sure that refrigerated trailers maintain correct temperatures and in countries like New Zealand to allow diesel truck operators to claim Road User Charge rebates when they are not driving on public roads, which can save businesses a truck load of money if you will pardon the pun.

As a fan of TV programs like Person of Interest and 24, which I hear is making a comeback, I often wonder why it seems so hard to track criminals, but if you follow my blogs and tweets you will see that more and more criminals are being caught, especially after stealing iPhones or other devices containing GPS and communications. I love those stories.

So, to the question of this blog. What we know is that government agencies (and businesses with their clients’ approval, such as finance and insurance companies) are tracking people and monitoring their behaviour. By monitoring Big Data about the location of people’s mobiles, algorithms can identify information such as where people live, work and play. They can identify associations with other people through this same data. For example if you monitor a person and establish their home (where their mobile is most nights of the year) and identify other mobile devices that are also at that location during most nights of the year, then you can identify that they also probably reside at that location.

If those people were criminal suspects of any kind, you could thereby potential make some assumptions that those people might also be criminals. This would be very useful, not only with terrorists, which we thought were the prime reason for being able to spy on people, but also gangs, drug dealers and manufacturers and more. I guess part of the issue there is whether this evidence is admissible in a court of law. But again I digress.

If you are able to monitor mobile phone radio connections using GPS or less accurate technologies and identify unknown devices such as prepaid mobiles that frequently appear at the same locations as known devices, that would suggest that you could infer the identity or characteristics of a user. If, for example, a person had a mobile for normal use and an anonymous prepaid mobile for more nefarious purposes and they were carried around together, you could infer that the user was the same person.

This could mean that effectively the use of a prepaid mobile, being used for the purposes of criminal activity, on the basis of its implied anonymity, could be fatally flawed. Not a bad thing in my opinion. The problem is more in the assumption that a governmental agency has the right to spy on its citizens without recourse and without obtaining a warrant from a court first, a bit like apologising after the event.

I am all for keeping law abiding citizens safe, but there should be transparency on how that is done, especially in countries that we consider to be enlightened democracies. Anyway, the answer to the question in my opinion is that using a prepaid mobile will not by default prevent you from being tracked or identified if an agency has the power to track radio devices. the technology is certainly easy to access.