Location-aware en masse

November 12, 2005

How do you make a regular cellphone location-aware? Apparently, you monitor the records indicating which tower the phone is on. Movement from one tower to the next can give highly accurate readouts on the movement of individuals and crowds.

I wouldn't think that this would give you manageable data that was accurate enough to do anything with, but it turns out that, yet again, profit motives will find a way. Companies are working with cellphone carriers to track traffic patterns to prevent traffic jams. You will sign up for a fee and get readouts of the general direction of people.

This seems more significant, however, because of the general applicability of this method. Apparently it is even possible to tell with some accuracy wether the cellphone traveling — which doesn't even have to be turned on (!) — is in the pocket of a person traveling by bike, by foot, or by car. This would allow, perhaps, for sophisticated monitoring of disaster relief efforts, for example.

Fascinating, but also, for some, Orwellian. Privacy advocates are worried about this emergence of broader monitoring applications, particularly in the instance of a developing protests. Recent spontaneous protests in Latin America and China come to mind. Police would theoretically be able to tell where protesters were convening just by looking at changes in the traffic patterns of cell phones.

It's hard not to imagine some hollow volcano where we're all being tracked like so many schools of fish, but there must be some useful applications here as well. We'll see how the market develops.

"Maryland and Virginia are testing technology that allows them to monitor traffic by tracking cellphone signals and mapping them against road grids."

Read it: Enlisting Cellphone Signals to Fight Road Gridlock

(Found on:NYT > Technology.)