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If you are planning a rendezvous with a secret lover, or if you do the odd bit of moonlighting during working hours, it might be a good idea to get rid of your cellphone.

Because, as many people know – but often forget – cellphones can be used to pinpoint your location almost anywhere in the world at any given time, and it could be just a matter of time before you come under 24-hour surveillance by a wide variety of Big Brothers.

The ability of South African researchers to monitor people’s movements via their cellphones was highlighted recently by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Known as Dynatrack (dynamic daily path tracking), the experiment involved tracking nearly 180 staff from the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape provincial government.

The volunteers were tracked for 48 hours by “pinging” their cellphones at five-minute intervals. This allows cellphones (and their owners) to be located via the closest cellphone tower.

According to CSIR lead researcher Anthony Cooper, the Dynatrack project was intended to gather information about commuters’ daily traffic and transport choices, without having to get people to fill in travel diaries, log books and other paperwork.

Speaking at the recent SA Transport Conference, Cooper said a similar pilot experiment was done in 2005, when 60 volunteers from the CSIR in Pretoria were pinged at regular intervals for two days.

The more recent Dynatrack project in February 2007 involved a larger group of Cape Town residents being tracked for two days to gather information which could help officials improve traffic and transport planning.

Cooper said he and his colleagues were very aware that the project would raise concerns about the invasion of privacy, so all volunteers were required to give written consent in advance.

Nevertheless, he noted that work done in previous pilot projects showed how easily people forgot they were being tracked and, for this reason, the researchers did not retain any data which could link the participants’ movements to their personal data.

“However, this has not been the case in other projects. For example, in Atlanta in the US, two companies have been building traffic models by monitoring the locations of cellphones anonymously, but without informed consent, or the participants even being aware they are being tracked.

“Each company uses its own patented technology, but both involve introducing equipment into the network to bleed off information from the network. It appears that both systems take two successive pings of a cellphone to create a vector without identifying in formation (i.e. the vector is anonymous) and then aggregate these vectors to create traffic flow data.”

Cooper said the two American companies therefore claimed there was no need for informed consent because the data was rendered anonymous – but this assumed that no one could relate these vectors back to a particular cellphone.

In South Africa, it became a legal requirement in July 2009 for all contract and prepaid cellphone customers to register their SIM cards with service providers in terms of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (Rica).

Under Rica, customers are legally obliged to provide their cellphone numbers, SIM card details, full names, ID numbers and residential addresses.

While the objective of the act is to help law enforcement agencies track criminals who use cellphones for illegal activities, the potential for corrupt government officials and agencies to abuse cellphone and other personal information was highlighted in the 1998 Hollywood thriller Enemy of the State, starring Gene Hackman, Will Smith and Jon Voight.

Earlier this year, a US company published a report titled “The electronic police state”, which attempted to rank countries where state agencies make extensive use of electronic forensic evidence such as cellphone pinging, credit card swipes, cheque transactions, surveillance cameras and Internet monitoring.

Written by encryption company Cryptohippie USA, the report ranks North Korea, China, Belarus, Russia, the US and UK as the top six “electronic police states” and warned of the inherent dangers to free speech and civil liberties.

South Africa was ranked 45th in its ability to gather electronic evidence against its citizens. - The Mercury