Makers of surveillance systems are offering governments across the world the ability to track the movements of almost anybody who carries a cellphone.
The technology works by exploiting an essential fact of all cellular networks: They must keep detailed, up-to-the-minute records on the locations of their customers to deliver calls and other services to them. Surveillance systems are secretly collecting these records to map people's travels over days, weeks or longer, according to company marketing documents and experts in surveillance technology.
The world's most powerful intelligence services, such as the National Security Agency and Britain's GCHQ, long have used cellphone data to track targets around the globe. But experts say these new systems allow less technically advanced governments to track people in any nation — including the United States — with relative ease and precision.
Users of such technology type a phone number into a computer portal, which then collects information from the location databases maintained by cellular carriers, company documents show. In this way, the surveillance system learns which cell tower a target is using, revealing his or her location to within a few blocks in an urban area or a few miles in a rural one.
It is unclear which governments have acquired these tracking systems, but one industry official, speaking to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive trade information, said that dozens of countries have bought or leased such technology in recent years. This rapid spread underscores how the burgeoning, multibillion-dollar surveillance industry makes advanced spying technology available worldwide.
"Any tin-pot dictator with enough money to buy the system could spy on people anywhere in the world," said Eric King, deputy director for Privacy International, a London-based activist group that warns about abuse of surveillance technology. "This is a huge problem."
Security experts say hackers, sophisticated criminal gangs and nations under sanctions also could use this tracking technology, which operates in a legal gray area. It is illegal in many countries to track people without their consent or a court order, but there is no clear international legal standard for secretly tracking people in other countries, nor is there a global entity with the authority to police potential abuses.
In response to questions from the Washington Post this month, the Federal Communications Commission said it would investigate possible misuse of tracking technology that collects location data from carrier databases.