Viewpoints

Viewpoint: Improving the wireless location identification bottleneck

Radio frequency pattern matching technology could make tracking suspects quicker and cheaper for law enforcement agencies

By Bhavin Shah

In recent years, local, state and regional law enforcement agencies have greatly increased their use of technology to fight crime. One area of focus is tracking suspect locations through the use of cellular phones and other wireless devices.

Before gaining access to a suspect’s location, law enforcement agencies typically must present a search warrant, a court order or a formal subpoena to a wireless network operator to comply with federal and state laws. According to a recent congressional inquiry led by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.),U.S. law enforcement agencies issued 1.3 million requests for wireless subscriber information in 2011. Radio frequency pattern matching (RFPM) and complementary technology could help reduce the time and cost associated with filling those requests.

The process for obtaining subscriber location information is considered cumbersome and antiquated by both law enforcement and the wireless industry. After obtaining a warrant and issuing a request to the wireless operator, the law enforcement agency often must navigate multiple offices and contacts within the operator organization to get the requested information. This not only costs law enforcement agencies labor hours, but also time in tracking suspects. Under federal law, wireless operators can charge a premium for immediate responses to a request, which can still take up to eight hours. 

After going through the process, subscriber location information may not even be accurate. Most operators rely on global positioning systems (GPS) to identify suspect location. That assumes that the suspect is in possession of a GPS-enabled phone; that the suspect has not disabled the GPS chip inside the phone; and that the suspect is not indoors, where it is difficult for GPS satellites to obtain a location. If any of those conditions are not met, then the requested location information is not useful.

Law enforcement agencies agree on the need for a solution that tracks non-GPS-enabled location information from the operator network and that allows for a surveillance application at the law enforcement agency site. This would eliminate the need for costly and time-consuming information requests to operators. Technology is available that would meet both of those conditions.

RFPM is a standards-based alternative location method that uses the device’s own radio signals to identify its location, removing dependence on satellites or other network hardware. RFPM is able to locate callers across any air interface and in any environment, eliminating limitations related to the device type or network technology. The technology works well in non-line-of-sight conditions, such as dense urban and indoor environments, and cannot be disabled by the suspect.

Yet law enforcement also needs a locally deployed surveillance system to eliminate requests to wireless operators. Several countries — not yet the U.S. — have deployed customized surveillance applications that connect to the wireless operator network while providing an easy-to-use interface that is directly accessible by law enforcement. With this tool, law enforcement can locate and track suspects in real time, as well as locate all wireless devices in a specific location at a given time. Wireless operators currently charge $50 to $75 per hour per cellular tower for “tower dumps,” which are vital during public emergencies, such as a bombing or natural disaster. Cooperation by the wireless operator would still be required, and the solution would need to be adapted to meet warrant guidelines and address privacy concerns.

So far, more than 20 operators have deployed the technology for e911. U.S. law enforcement agencies are considering the surveillance application, but have not yet deployed it. Once in place, this RFPM-enabled surveillance system would make law enforcement’s job more efficient, helping to save time, money and lives.

Bhavin Shah is VP of marketing and business development for Mountain View, Calif.-based Polaris Wireless. He has nearly 20 years of experience in the wireless telecommunications industry. He can be reached at bshah@polariswireless.com.

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