Mobile providers clam up over cellphone location data

Telecom and Vodafone not talking about accuracy and retention of location data

Telecom and Vodafone have declined to answer questions from Computerworld on the accuracy of location information on their mobile phones and their retention of location data after the call has terminated and been billed.

Mobile phone data is a crucial element in evidence given at the Emma Agnew murder trial, allegedly testifying to the location of Agnew and the defendant around the time of her death.

Bloggers have asked about the reliability of this data and expressed concern that mobile phone companies may be able to trace movements of innocent members of the public by using reception data at one tower or, more accurately, triangulation from two towers, even if their phones do not have a GPS capability. One, the Aardvark blog’s Bruce Simpson, headed his commentary “No doubt about it, 2008=1984.”

Coincidentally, a story on Australia’s Four Corners television programme last week expressed doubt on cellphone location evidence cited in the case of the 1994 killing of MP John Newman. The difference between prosecution’s and defendant Phuong Ngo’s assertions about his location during the murder came down to the use of two adjacent antennae on the same cellphone tower, Four Corners says.

Technical expert Professor Reg Coutts of Adelaide University said on the programme that there is a significant “grey area” which could have been serviced by either antenna and includes Ngo’s claimed location at the relevant time. Ngo was convicted of organising Newman’s murder.

Foolproof mobile-phone location “only works in movies”, Coutts told Four Corners and such evidence is often inadequately challenged in court.

Vodafone spokesman Paul Brislen at first declined to reply to any of Computerworld’s questions earlier this month on the grounds that the Agnew case was still in progress.

When the questions were rephrased more generally last week, he still declined comment on Vodafone’s behalf, saying simply “unfortunately we aren’t willing to answer these questions”.

Telecom’s Phil Love declined to answer without giving a reason.

Both spokesmen say they meet all obligations under the law regarding provision of possible evidence. “We work closely with Police; they are one of our customers,” Love adds.

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Tags location dataNetworking & Telecomms IDVodafonetelecom

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