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Will 'no wires' mean 'no privacy'?

[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.29]

As Prince Charles and at least one Quebec politician have learned, cellular telephones may be convenient, but they aren't necessarily private. Canada's nearly1.8 million cellular-telephone users may well be aware that their conversations can be tapped with relative ease, but few may realize that cellular technology itself makes it possible to track your movements-- and future wireless technologies may be able to track you with pinpoint precision. Are cellphone users getting more than they bargained for?

Cellphones work by communicating with a network of receivers covering adjacent areas. As you pass from one area to another, the specific "cell" that keeps you connected to the network changes, and your call is "handed off" from one cell to the next. But for you to be able to receive calls, the cell network needs to know exactly which cell you're in. If your cellular phone is switched on, it's continually transmitting a signal telling a nearby receiver who you are and that you reside, however temporarily, in its cell.

A cell can cover an area of up to a few square kilometers, so anyone who wanted to locate you would have to look for your needle in a relatively large haystack. That's not to say that telephone companies-- or surveillance agencies like the U.S. National Security Agency or Canada's Communications Security Establishment-- regularly track average citizens via their cellphone emanations. But it is technically possible.

That, however, may be small potatoes compared to future wireless technologies. "Personal communication services" (PCS) are one example. This up-and-coming technology uses small base stations within a building or in a very small area to communicate with handheld phones inside that limited coverage area. PCS is still new; this year, the CRTC licensed four PCS vendors to carry out trial installations.

The privacy angle of PCS has received some limited scrutiny. As an all-digital service (most cellphone networks in Canada are still analogue), it is likely that all conversations carried out over PCS will be encrypted. "The Princess Di/Prince Charles situation could not happen [with PCS]," says Andrew Burroughs, senior VP of corporate development at Toronto's TeleZone Corp., one of the four PCS licensees. TeleZone's wireless phones employ a proprietary encryption method developed by Northern Telecom. "Encryption is a big advancement for privacy. At least people cannot inadvertently or deliberately listen into your phone calls, which was a big, big problem. We actually are looking at perhaps doing a test of putting a [PCS] network in a stock market and some government offices"-- where security is a key issue-- "and preliminarily, we've gotten approval that this is a secure network."

But PCS base stations will still know your approximate location as long as your phone is set to receive calls. And since the coverage area is so small, knowing your approximate location is about as good as knowing your exact location-- in the washroom, outside the front door smoking a cigarette, or anywhere else. "We know wherever you are in our network [of] base stations," Burroughs says. "The network is constantly tracking you."

He adds: "In the O.J. Simpson case, they were able to find him by locating where he was making cellular telephone calls from [via] his car, so maybe there are privacy issues. [But] we haven't really addressed those issues because no one has brought them up."

However, those issues have come up at the office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in Ottawa. "I think the disturbing notion about the whole personal telephone, the portable telephone which follows you, is the whole notion of potential physical surveillance and records of where you have been," says Sally Jackson, director of public affairs. She notes that such surveillance records would be in the hands of the telephone companies in the first instance, and wonders who else could, should, or will obtain those records. Should the police be granted access? "Maybe they should be. I don't know. Maybe they should be available in repsonse to a warrant. There are so many questions here.

"We just are not thinking about and talking about the social implications of technology because we're just so fascinated by this whiz-bang stuff that we don't ask questions. Because we're so mesmerized by all this stuff-- and it's no doubt that some of these tools do have an enormous convenience factor-- we don't have the knowledge of how these things will affect people [over time]."

Wireless communications pose another privacy question. In the future-- around the year 2025, industry estimates suggest-- North America will have allotted every possible conventional ten-digit phone number, forcing telephone utilities to consider issuing longer phone numbers that are yours for life and follow you wherever you go via various means. That kind of surveillance is not farfetched: Each individual cellphone and PCS phone already has its own unique number, which amounts to a personal identifier as long as you own the phone.

Unless you manually block the display of your number on the phone you're calling (dialling 1167 before the number will usually do so), the "privacy-enhancing" technology of caller ID transmits your phone number and name along with your call. It's already possible to link that phone number and name with any number of databases. This could mean that the simple act of toting a wireless phone gives unknown third parties access to your medical records, purchases, banking history, and anything else that can be linked to a phone number. In the future, pressing the Send key on a cellphone may do more than simply dial a call.