Moscow is installing a cell phone tracking network inside its metro stations. The system is, according to transport police, all about catching and deterring cell phone thieves. But even though the police sources say it’s all about finding phones with an accuracy of about 16 feet “if the [SIM] card is wanted,” there’s major concern the service is actually about widespread phone surveillance.
ArsTechnica notes this type of cell phone surveillance is typically done by a system known as an International Mobile Subscriber Identity code catcher, or “stingray.” The system works by pretending to act as a cell phone mast, prompting cellphones within range to respond to what they see as a standard tower’s “ping” with a quick burst of radio data that identifies the handset. These signals are the staccato buzzing you sometimes hear when you put a phone too near a loudspeaker. A stingray simply sends out a ping, listens for the incoming “hello” signals from phones, and then its many masts can triangulate the phone’s position.
The issue, as you may already have picked up on, is that it’s not necessarily about tracking a single “hot” phone. While one could spot a stolen phone’s data on the network, it’s actually just going to be hidden among every other phone’s data. This could mean widespread unwarranted geolocating surveillance of metro passengers.
Geolocation surveillance is a hot topic at the moment, thanks to the revelation that the NSA engages in widespread phone metadata surveillance–data that can include geopositioning information–and scandals were caused when department stores admitted to tracking clients using their phone’s Wi-Fi data.