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Philadelphia

Shop Talk: TruePosition knows exactly where you are right now

In the mid-90s, the FCC mandated that mobile network operators would have to come up with a way to locate mobile handsets making emergency 911 phone calls. In stepped Berwyn-based TruePosition. Unlike a handful of competitors, the technology that TruePosition utilized—Uplink Time Difference of Arrival (U-TDOA)—required no hardware installation on the handsets themselves; instead, U-TDOA […]

Stock photo courtesy of TruePoint.

<em>Stock photo courtesy of TruePosition.</em>
In the mid-90s, the FCC mandated that mobile network operators would have to come up with a way to locate mobile handsets making emergency 911 phone calls.
In stepped Berwyn-based TruePosition.
Unlike a handful of competitors, the technology that TruePosition utilized—Uplink Time Difference of Arrival (U-TDOA)—required no hardware installation on the handsets themselves; instead, U-TDOA collects location data from hardware installed on cellular towers.
Since, the subsidiary of Liberty Media Corporation has installed 75,000 measurement units in the U.S., locates 5 million emergency calls per month and serves 100 million people daily.
Are you a customer of AT&T or T-Mobile? The carriers can locate you in a moment’s notice—using Philly hardware. TruePosition does more than $175 million in revenue each year.
U-TDOA compares the time difference of mobile-phone signals as they reach units installed on multiple cell towers. Based on the difference in the time it takes to reach each tower, the data is then triangulated to find the phone’s location. The data is 99.9 percent reliable and can locate a mobile device within 50 meters.
The cherry-on-top is that phones can be located at any moment they are idle, making a voice call, or sending or receiving text messages. As the company stated in promotional material, “U-TDOA can locate all mobile phones that want to be located, as well as those that do not want to be located.”
The company began getting calls from nations around the world, curious about how the location-based cellular technology could be helpful for national security and public safety.
“They’d say, ‘you know that really robust solution you deployed? Can you deploy that for us?,” TruePosition Director of Marketing Brian Varano said in a telephone interview. “The answer was an emphatic ‘yes.”
Last week, TruePosition acquired a source code license exclusive to safety and security applications from Profilium Inc., creators of geo-profiling technology that serves location-specific alerts and advertising. TruePosition also acquired a 20 percent stake in the company.
Profilum’s technology is a form of behavioral targeting, the kind that the FTC warned against as recently as last month. The technology combines subscriber preferences and demographics with mobility patterns, ultimately providing data on individual subscriber interests and habits. It then takes that data and delivers highly-targeted advertising to mobile devices.
What does location-based advertising have to do with national security?
The technology is a solution for safety around the world, Varano said, if the geo-profiles being recorded by Profilium’s technology could be linked with actual phone numbers. The patterns of usage that Prolifum gathers for its advertising data is kept anonymous.
Of course, linking trackable, real-time location-based data to citizens begins to raise serious privacy concerns.
In the U.S., law enforcement agencies wanting to link the data would need necessary warrants (except in the case of emergency exceptions—if lives are on the line— when real-time location-based data can be used immediately), Varano said.
“In other parts of the world, like the Middle East and Asia Pacific, that legislation isn’t in place, so government can do real-time tracking of suspects without warrants,” he said. He was quick to note that the company isn’t doing any of the tracking; that’s up to the governments.
While Minority Report comparisons could be apt, there’s validity to the security this technology can provide.
Say a suspect is visiting a government building or embassy on a regular basis. The hardware installed on cell towers notices that the same phone has been casing the joint for a number of days, and enables officials to begin building a profile of that phone number.
Or take Improvised Explosive devices (IED), sometimes wired to mobile phone detonators that fire as soon as a phone call or text message is sent to it. TruePosition’s tech is able to notice if a phone has been stationary for an inordinate amount of time.
“If this phone has been sitting next to a government building for four hours, is it someone asleep on a park bench, or a bomb stuffed in a duffelbag?,” Varano asked.
Another aspect of the technology enables government agencies to setup “geo-fences,” virtual tripwires that will notice if a known suspect or terrorist comes within a certain distance of critical infrastructure. Governments can also use the geo-fence concept to extend virtual borders where they’re unable to install tactical infrastructure. In nations hoping to keep out illegal immigrants, for example, any mobile phone could set off the tripwire.
But if a suspect or terrorist knows he’s being tracked, won’t he just switch phones?
The researchers at TruePosition did their homework. Varano noted that individuals often switch SIM cards from device to device or cycle through new pre-paid phones to get law enforcement off their trail.
“They may walk around with four phones; one to call Steve, one to call Frank, another to call George, so it disguises the link between the associates,” he said. “With location information, we can see these four phones traveling together, so you can deduce that it’s the same person.”
The technology can also track influxes of newly purchased pre-paid phones that are ending up visiting the same locations. Same locations, same individual.
Whatever the case, feel safer (or more paranoid) knowing this technology is coming from the Philly region.
Varano said that the company has plans to bolster its presence in Philadelphia between the second and fourth quarters of this year. “We’re a company that’s been around since ’92, does $200 million in revenue, and no one in the Philadelphia area knows what we do,” he said.
Sure, it may be hard to find TruePosition. But trust us, the company won’t have any problem finding you.

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