TriangulatingSome media outlets are reporting on the ability of authorities to exploit a cell phone feature that enables them to triangulate on a caller. Julian Sanchez at Reason Online's Hit & Run references a Guardian article describing a number of "Orwellian" surveillance techniques, notable in this context is the ability to activate a cell phone's microphone in order to track it without the owner's knowledge. Michael Totten writing at Instapundit describes this as "chilling."
Actually, a number of defense communications companies, such as Thales Communications (Paris, France), offer systems for obtaining communications intelligence (COMINT) on wireless networks, such as cellular and satellite phones. The technology is not new, but perhaps the license of Western authorities to use such systems to monitor suspected terrorists hidden among their populations will reach new levels of permissiveness. This capability is another outgrowth of the digital revolution, where new applications and services such as text messaging and covert tracing, can be added to existing hardware with centrally managed software changes.
Speaking of triangulation, here's an anecdote from the First Chechen War (1994-1996) from eDefense Online's European Editor Michal Fiszer describing how Russian forces used communications monitoring technologies to locate and strike a Chechen leader:
On the morning of April 22, 1996, the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev was fatally wounded. He was having a long talk on his mobile telephone, the story goes, when suddenly a missile struck almost his exact location. The bane of Russian forces fighting the Chechen separatists subsequently died of his wounds. According to unconfirmed sources, Dudayev's mobile-phone conversation was monitored by a Russian signals-intelligence (SIGINT) unit, which immediately passed the target's grid coordinates to a missile brigade tens of kilometers away, equipped with the Tochka [SS-21] battlefield rocket. It took about 10 minutes from the time Dudayev was located to the impact of the missile.
Another dimension of this story is the accuracy of modern Russian battlefield rockets. For more on that, see Michal's story, Bolt From the Blue.
Battlefields are no longer separate places where uniformed armies engage each other. The use of COMINT in the urban battlespaces of today can be expected to become as routine as surveillance by airborne sensor and electronics intelligence (ELINT) aircraft of conventional battlefields. War is where the enemy is.
For more on urban battlefield surveillance technologies, see Hearing Impaired by eDefense Online's Senior Editor Ted McKenna.