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Mobile IoT: Article

Who's Calling?

Who's Calling?

Drug dealers love digital mobile telephones. It's not just being able to stay in touch with customers and suppliers on the move, nor the advantages of instantaneous communications in a very competitive industry. Drug dealers love digital mobile telephones for the security they offer - security and anonymity.

When we use the World Wide Web, we often assume that we're relatively anonymous. We visit various Web sites, knowing that the site owners are aware that someone has visited, but we assume that they have no way of finding out who we are.

In reality, it's neither difficult nor expensive to find out. The IP address (unique number assigned to your computer) is known by every site you visit or service you use, and while that address may be allocated to someone else later, the fact that it was allocated to you at that time will certainly be recorded somewhere. Local laws differ, but in the UK, an ISP will keep records of who had what IP address for three months, and make those records available to government offices on request.

A recent attempt to expand the offices that had automatic access to this information, to include local councils and health departments, was blocked only after public outcry, but it's clear that any government agency can request this information and generally get hold of it.

Strangely enough, you may be more anonymous at work, where your Internet access is likely to be routed through a proxy server (or NAT) so the whole company will share a single IP address. Of course, the best way to be anonymous on the Internet is to walk in to a cyber café and pay cash for your access; it feels less anonymous, but it's the only way to be sure.

Mobile Insecurity
Phone calls are no better. Analog mobiles in the UK were embarrassingly insecure, a fact highlighted by both Princess Diana and Prince Charles each being caught (separately) talking to "significant others" in 1989. Listening in to calls was just a matter of tuning a radio at the right time and I remember warning a client that a group of kids outside her office were cloning mobiles from the signals (collecting the information isn't illegal, only using it).

With the coming of digital and GSM, the networks touted the new standard as being completely secure, and criminals everywhere rejoiced. The encryption around GSM turned out not to be as secure as it should have been, with networks deploying a badly implemented version of the standard. The UK police (among others) now have access to scanners that will listen in to GSM phone calls with relative ease, but when we're making phone calls we generally rely on security through obscurity.

Listening in to trans-Atlantic calls routed through satellite is very easy, just a matter of a few hundred dollars of equipment and parking in the right place, but it's not very useful either. Thousands of calls are being routed at any one time, and finding the one you're interested in is next to impossible. However, listening in on a call is often less important than knowing that the call was made.

Making a phone call will often reveal the number you're dialing from. At the least, the fact that the call was made is stored with the phone company for billing purposes. In the UK the police are now routinely data-mining telephone records. Once someone is pulled for dealing drugs, or a similar crime, the police check his or her phone records and note every number called, or that has called them.

Then every phone number called, or called to, is checked; each of those numbers is compared. If a large number of people who speak to this dealer have another number in common, then that might be a dealer too. Compare records from a few dealers and you might even pick up another level, a distributor. In these circumstances it's not the content of the calls the police are interested in, just the fact that they exist.

Of course, it's not just drug dealers who have something to hide. The ability to pick up every number called by an individual has some potential in industrial espionage, not to mention cheating spouses and a myriad of other misdemeanors that would better remain private. Once the police and various government departments have routine access to such information, it's reasonable to assume that anyone with the money could gain access if they wished. Knowing exactly who a company talks to is valuable information, perhaps as valuable as knowing what's being said.

Of course, data mining gets you only a number; then it's a matter of looking up the name and address that match. Early mobile telephones required signing up for a contract and paying a monthly bill (with a credit check on name and address), but too many potential customers failed the credit check. Then there are the under 18's who can't legally take on credit without parental backing (some parents do underwrite their children's phone bills, but all the ones I know regret it!).

Then pay-as-you-go phones came into usage, paid for in advance and displaying a ticking down of money each time a call is made. They've proved massively popular. The networks also adore them - customers paying in advance! Not to mention that a percentage of those recharge cards are never activated - a service paid for and never used. Customers pay over-the-odds for the convenience of being able to run out of credit in the middle of a call, and the explosion of SMS usage can be attributed in part to the fixed cost of each message, making it easier for kids to manage their funds.

The Price of Anonymity
Without a credit check there's no reason for mobile phone users to register their name or address with the network. Indeed, it's perfectly practical to own a phone completely anonymously in the UK. Most companies will charge you a premium, around $70, for choosing to remain anonymous, as they won't be able to sell your details to advertisers; but this gives you a number without a name.

In the U.S., Virgin has just launched their mobile system, and is allowing anonymous usage; in fact they are encouraging it! The youth market Virgin is interested in will be able just to pick up the phone and use it, not fill in forms and get junk mail. No doubt American drug dealers will also be quick to become Virgin customers.

Proper anonymous Internet access also becomes possible, with a free ISP connected via an anonymous mobile phone. It becomes virtually impossible to find out who is sharing those MP3 files, or who posted that rumor that so affected your share price.

With only a phone number to go on, there is little the police can do, except phone it. Even the next generation of location-based systems is unlikely to be much use in this respect. Knowing that there's a drug dealer in Trafalgar Square just isn't useful, though probably true.

This leaves the police looking for John (as all drugs are bought from a man named John in a pub in East London), and hoping he's carrying his mobile phone when they find him.

More Stories By Bill Ray

Bill Ray, former editor-in-chief (and continuing distinguished contributor to) Wireless Business & Technology magazine, has been developing wireless applications for over 20 ears on just about every platform available. Heavily involved in Java since its release, he developed some of the first cryptography applications for Java and was a founder of JCP Computer Services, a company later sold to Sun Microsystems. At Swisscom he was responsible for the first Java-capable DTV set-top box, and currently holds the position of head of Enabling Software at 02, a UK network operator.

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