How Wireless Will Pave the Path to Neobank Profitability

I'm delighted to bring you an opinion...

An end of an era: Vodafone UK turns off 3G services

I thought it was worthwhile highlighting this...

Mobile World Congress: Did the mainstream media notice?

I resolved this year to make sure...

Ben Harvey wants to know where you are, right now

Today, Ben is wrapped in a long raincoat with spy-hat tipped strategically down over his eyes — he wants to know where you are, right now…

– – – – –

Location, Location, Location…

Picture 13

Rather like opening bottles with their teeth, we all know someone that can do this. In fact, given the audience I’m writing for, we all probably know more than one person – someone who has this ability, this skill, the means to make it happen. They’re like drug-dealers, in the way they introduce you to the wares they pedal; furtive, casting their eyes about the room before they drop it into the conversation, because what they do isn’t exactly legal.

It’s actually very illegal. And, again like narcotics, the supply of this commodity relies on a string of people from the source to the consumer, although unlike narcotics this isn’t something that you have to fund by selling your botty down Piccadilly Circus.

Tracking mobile phones. We all know someone that can do it but we’re buggered if we quite know how – there’s the basic science approach, of course, which is that (and forgive me, here, if I’m spouting the complete knucking obvious) the reason they’re called cellular phones is that the reception is handed, as you move about the country, from geographical cell to geographical cell, the call being handed from base-station to base-station like Tarzan swinging from vine to vine. And, of course, the side-effect of this is that it’s necessary for the system to know where you are in order to route your call.

And if it’s in the system, then some clever chap can interrogate the enormous data-logs of the phone operators and find out roughly where you are. ‘Roughly”, though, often doesn’t cut the mustard, given that a base-station on, say, the Isle of Skye handles rather less traffic than a tower perched on the roof of some sex-shop in Soho (I was very disappointed, by the way, the first time I ever visited Soho. I was expecting dead pornographers in gutters, and gum-chewing harlots lingering under every red street-light. Instead I found 302 pizzerias, 106 graphic-design agencies and one newsagent that sold adult DVDs. The newsagents was closed).

The really useful trick is triangulation. The various people I’ve spoken to on this subject say that, by comparing signal-strengths between towers you can – as long as you have sufficient access to the back-room technology behind the networks – get a trace on one particular mobile number down to an area the size of your average garden shed. That’s best-case, though, given an inner-city concentration of towers and nice, flat geography – again, things would be a little more ropey on the Isle of Skye (which, just in case you need to know, has 0 pizzerias, 0 graphic-design agencies and a newsagent who will drag you out and shoot you unless you ask for anything other than a copy of Sea Fishing Monthly).

Now, obviously the fact that there are people out there doing this is cause for some concern. Or is it? Is it really that much of a problem? First off, we can assume that the authorities do it on a daily basis – a state with the most number of CCTV camera per person in the world, a police force that swabs you for the DNA database should you so much as drive to the shops with one brake-light gone, well…it’s not going to balk at using such a powerful surveillance tool in return for bunging a few knighthoods at those gents in charge of infrastructure. Remember – you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you.

Agent Mulder rants aside, you look up ‘Private Detectives” in your local Yellow Pages (this is the first time in five years I’ve actually opened my copy of this tree-slaughtering waste of time. I only actually ever use it to cosh the scumbag delivery-boy who, every year, would try and squeeze the new & equally-pointless copy through my letter-box otherwise). Give the nice gentleman in the trenchcoat a call and ask him – and it is always a him. Women seem to have better things to do than to sit in Ford Mondeos, smoking Rothmans and doing Sudoku whilst keeping an eye on a wife who’s having an affair. Personally, if your husband is going to set people to spy on you then I think you’re morally entitled to bonk as many other people as you like, but hey. You give your local gumshoe a call and see if they trace people using their mobiles and I’ll bet you that they do.

Again, this is something that seems to have gently percolated down in the last few years. At the risk of flogging the drugs analogy to death it does remind me of cocaine, in that it used to be something that rock-stars snorted off of models in Parisian penthouses and now it’s something that chavs snort off fruit-machines in Wetherspoons in Wigan. Please excuse me, now, because I although I am aware that I have flogged this analogy to death, I’m going to hold a séance so that I can bring it back and flog it some more – drugs aren’t legalised because they do a lot of harm, both physically and mentally, and also clog up all our valuable fruit-machines. Thing is, why don’t networks make this tracking service available to the public without the namby-pamby mobile aggregators getting in the way? Why not make it point-and-click?

As long as people had the opportunity to opt-out of the commercial service – the illusion of privacy is, for some reason, important to some people – wouldn’t this be one hell of an application? Pay, say, O2 a fiver through a web-based Google Maps mash-up interface and, ping, ten seconds later they can give you the location of your boss to within fifty feet. Pay a tenner and it’ll show you their last 100 locations. Worried about where you son is? Wondering how long it will be until your wife manages to fight her way through the rush-hour traffic, so you can time dinner? Or just want to know where your ex-girlfriend is, because you’re a psycho? Fiver, ping, result. Everyone’s a winner. Apart from your ex-girlfriend. You know, that page-three girl in Sea Fishing Monthly looked just like her…


  1. How much would, say, 10 single-click-to-dismiss adverts relevant to my preferences and location every day, be worth?

    Enough to keep Blyck and Extreme Mobile afloat?

  2. Just a bit of clarification on a few points for you:

    Any company that offers location services, whether active or passive (I request a location lookup, or my location is looked up without me asking respectively) must be regulated by ICSTIS.

    And on the of the more important ones in terms of granularity is that the UK operators to not give out triangulation information, they will only return the long/lat of one of the cell towers you are attached to.

    We are phasing out cell based lookup from the operators at BuddyPing because a) it costs too much (10 -15p per lookup, not good for a consumer service) and b) it is not geographically scalable.

    In terms of commercial rollouts that people pay for, well the whole track my kid thing works, but that is mainly because it taps into the inherent fear of the parents, a fear they will pay to quell.


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