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Ofcom fails to prevent release of cell locations

But operators might not play ball

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Ofcom has failed in its appeal against last September's ruling that information on cellphone base stations must be available to the public, in database form, though it remains to be seen if up-to-date information does become available.

Last year the Information Commissioner ruled that in addition to the searchable map, Sitefinder, Ofcom must provide information on the location and specifications of all base stations in a database style, for analysis by concerned members of the public. At that time we couldn't see what possible grounds Ofcom could have for appeal, but clearly we lacked their imagination.

Ofcom did appeal, with T-Mobile later joining them, and presented a plethora of reasons why such a database must not fall into the public's hands.

They started out by claiming it was commercially sensitive, and that other operators would love to have access to such a database. But a previous claim that it would take 1029 man-hours to compile the information, using the already-available map, undermined this argument when T-Mobile admitted they hadn't bothered to do just that.

A second argument revolved around if radio waves could be described as "emissions", in the context that the public have a right to access information about emissions. T-Mobile argued that radio waves have no mass and therefore aren't emissions. It was also argued that low-powered devices such as baby monitors and remote controls should be equally documented, but both these points were rejected by the tribunal.

Ofcom tried suggesting that criminals might use the detailed location information to plan robberies from phone base stations. But phone masts aren't easily hidden, especially when the already-available Sitefinder allows them to be located within a few metres, so that claim was also rejected.

Even more desperate was the idea that landowners would be able to find holes in coverage, and thus charge operators extra where they knew an additional site was needed. But intended locations aren't so easily identified, and it's hard to imagine every possible site in an area having a single owner.

With all the claims rejected, and the tribunal ruling against the appeal, Ofcom should be working to provide a database of all the information on every cellphone base station in the country, in an easily accessible form, but the reality isn't quite that simple. T-Mobile was the first to withhold information from Sitefinder (and thus Ofcom), in August 2005, but the other operators soon joined the embargo while they waited for the results of the appeal.

T-Mobile told the tribunal that they "would give serious consideration as to whether to continue providing up-to-date data for Sitefinder again, at least in the format in which it has previously been provided", if the ruling should go against them.

Submitting information to the Sitefinder database is voluntary, and if all the operators decided to stop providing information then it would be difficult to demand that they do: changes to their license would take years and no doubt involve expensive legal minds on both sides.

But without it the public is reduced to local planning departments for information on what that mast on the horizon is kicking out: and even if you don't believe it's dangerous, it's hard to argue the information shouldn't be public.

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