The Daily Telegraph reported last week that John McAfee, the entrepreneur and founder of McAfee Anti-Virus, who is currently wanted on murder charges, posted a request last week on a message board regarding how long it would take authorities to triangulate a mobile phone signal and with what accuracy. You can see the Daily Telegraph report here.
Whilst you can only assume that McAfee wanted this information for personal reasons, his question raises serious issues around the use of mobile technology to trace and track individuals.
It is worth starting by stating that technology is morally neutral. It can be used as a force of good and bad. Consider for example young people’s use of mobile phones. Since the universal adoption of the mobile by young people, new negative phenomena such as cyber-bullying have come about (for an interesting infographic on the subject click here). However, the adoption of mobile technology has also provided additional ways for young people to report bullying and other abuse, via text message for example. It is clear that technology can be used for positive and negative reasons.
Location information is routinely used to locate mobile communications fraud, either by the operators themselves or third parties working on their behalf. Being able to identify where fraud is taking place can lead to arrests, confiscation of equipment and reduction of crime. It is therefore a far stronger deterrent than simply cutting off fraudsters’ numbers, as it actually enables criminals to be caught, rather than temporarily side-tracked.
Of course the counter argument is that someone’s location is a matter of privacy and that whatever they are using their phone for, legal or illegal, should not be a matter for the state. A recent ruling in the US, which is reported here, demonstrates that this is not the case. It will be interesting to see how this matter develops over the course of the next few years and across other territories.
Either way, the answer to John McAfee’s original message board question, as to how long it would take for his phone to be traced and with what accuracy is likely to be “quicker, and with more accuracy, than you think.”