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Mobile networks: the state's new bloodhounds?

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Pinning you to the crime scene

The information the police get from your network operator might be enough to place you far from the club and get your judge-friend-alibi into trouble, but it may well not be good enough to place you at the scene. If the crime warrants a big enough budget, the boys in blue might then turn to a mobile phone forensics company to find out more.

A whole industry has sprung up around getting information off mobile phones - a far cry from the days when a drug dealer was picked up with a Psion II full of contacts. These days, professional mobile phone forensics is big business, though interestingly it's one in which anyone can set themselves up and offer their services to the local cop-shop, without so much as an ISO certification. As companies are frequently selected on basis of recommendations from other coppers, once you've got your foot in the door no one is ever likely to check your credentials.

The biggest UK player is Forensic Telecommunication Services Ltd, a company based in Sevenoaks - we can't say where, as they operate out of a number of Post Office boxes. FTS was broken into in August, though its data seems to have remained secure.

A company like FTS will take a handset, of the same model as yours if they can't get the actual handset off you, and place it where the police think you might have been. That way they can compare the exact signal strength with that recorded by the network operator at the time of the crime, allowing a little for atmospherics, or repeating the experiment if necessary. They can lock your phone down to an exact location with a good degree of accuracy - good enough to present to a jury, anyway.

It might not prove you committed the crime, but it could easily strain your alibi to breaking point.

Getting away with it

A pre-paid SIM, paid for in cash, should be standard-issue for anyone planning a crime spree, though few criminals have the foresight for such an investment, and forwarding your old number to it would be something of a giveaway.

Turning off your mobile, and removing the battery for the properly paranoid, should be good enough to ensure you're not being tracked.

If it's already too late, your only hope is that your crime doesn't warrant enough budget to track you down, or that no one notices it for the 12 months the network operators are hanging onto their data.

If you can do that, you'll be free to spend your ill-gotten gains, perhaps on a new mobile, or something rather grander, depending on the crime. ®

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