Opinion

The Government’s Upping Its Phone-Tracking Game

The Government’s Upping Its Phone-Tracking Game

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Blufax sounds like some kind of faxing service, but it’s actually a high-tech system San Diego’s government is using to track smartphones.

Commentary - in-story logoOn the federal level, officials have spent millions of dollars on these devices, and we’re seeing use crop up in more and more cities – San Diego included. Here’s how Blufax systems track phones without being detected, how the government is using it today and what might be some areas of concern.

Modern phones have tiny radios in them to connect to other devices wirelessly. These radios send out beacons like radar pings on a submarine. Each ping sends a unique sequence of letters and numbers called a MAC ID. By listening for that beacon, computers can record which devices are nearby. A typical smartphone has a radio to connect to cell phone towers, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Blufax is a sensor system used to detect a device with its Bluetooth capability turned on, such as a smartphone or headset.

It’s marketed as a cost-effective way to measure traffic: Multiple units can be used to calculate speed as cars containing these smartphones or headsets move down a road. Blufax is made by Traffax, a Maryland manufacturer. Each unit costs about $2,500. The federal government has spent more than $9 million on these devices. Many local governments have deployed units as well.

Here’s an example of the information captured by one of these scanners:

DB ID Timestamp MAC ID RSSI CoD Vendor
45406 2014-05-16 16:18:12 00:22:7E:5F:3C:18 myCar -72 Handsfree PARROT SA
18005 2014-04-20 12:59:27 D8:2A:7E:0E:C3:30 JillSmith -85 Smartphone Apple

One thing to point out about that sample: Most Bluetooth data lacks personally identifying information. But these systems may include names and email addresses in the ID field.

I wanted to find out how San Diego might be using this technology, so I sent a California Public Records Act request to SANDAG. You can browse through the documents they sent back to me here. I learned they have at least 16 Blufax units, and plan to add them to every roadside call box along our freeways. The stated intention is to measure traffic speed and volume here in San Diego.

Moving from collecting anonymous data to a system that personally identifies individuals and stores that data is cause for concern. In one SANDAG document I received, there’s discussion of doing exactly that using “sensors that re-identify vehicles specifically.” Some examples given are “electronic toll tag transponders, cell-phone tracking, license plate reading, Bluetooth sniffing, magnetic signatures, (and) video tracking.”

By combining a license plate or phone number with a Bluetooth serial number, it’s possible to track citizens via their phone.

This isn’t science fiction. Houston has linked toll road transponders, which record personal identities with Bluetooth scans. In another effort, researchers at the University of Washington cross-referenced license plate reader data with Bluetooth data, which then personally identified individuals. Video tracking could combine facial recognition with Bluetooth scans to personal identify Bluetooth owners as well.

I haven’t found any specific documents showing that San Diego is personally identifying Bluetooth devices. But authorities are intentionally withholding documents that might reveal more.

San Diego CityBeat revealed local law enforcement agencies are building a database to track where citizens travel using license plate scans. Does this data also collect Bluetooth serial numbers? I asked SANDAG to make that data public and they refused. I’ve filed a lawsuit, asking a judge to compel them to reveal this information. A court date is set for September.

The police have phony cell phone towers called Stingrays that trick phones into revealing their whereabouts. Might these devices also be used in conjunction with Bluetooth scanning? It’s unclear because a request for documents on this technology was mostly rejected. San Diego police turned over a single — heavily redacted — document.

The government is invisibly collecting data on Bluetooth-equipped smartphones along roadways. It’s logical to assume this collection will expand to other public areas, as the scanners are relatively cheap and portable. Since smartphones are increasingly integrated into our everyday lives, they make a tantalizing tool for precise tracking.

While there’s no data suggesting individuals are being tracked in San Diego just yet, the technology exists, and the coordinated secrecy by law enforcement agencies makes it a real possibility.

Michael Robertson is an Internet entrepreneur and the founder of digital music company MP3.com. Robertson’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

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18 comments
john stump
john stump subscriber

Phillip Franklin ^ In reply to your characterization as "paranoid" those  that questioning the governments secret collection and secret use of vehicle travel data, I understand your approach, that I summarize as: "You traveled in the open so you got watched"  or "you walked done the street in a low cut, short, tight fitting  red dress to get goggled at" The problem is bigger than just the watching Its the secret peeping tom nature of the watching and what the select few that control this do with it.


As you recall,  The articles concerned trying to obtain the article's protagonist 's own police SADAG's surveillance record.  Nope that data is their private matter for their private use.  Vote No on any SANDAG tax proposal until they come clean.  Data is power and secret data is very powerful  The abuse of power is why the founders established a very limited government, more than 200 hundred years ago.  Unlimited secret government surveillance programs gave use KRISTALLNACHT in current memory.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kristallnacht

Phillip Franklin
Phillip Franklin subscriber

Your commentary sounds more than a little paranoid.  Do you think the police are actually tracking you?  For the most part just turn off the features of your electronic devices that allow you to be tracked if you feel that paranoid.  As you should know if you use those devices and those features your privacy will no doubt be diminished. As more and more of the features on these devices become common obviously the more privacy must be surrendered.  It is simply the nature of the convenience these device offer.  It like people who post intimate images on Facebook and are appalled when they are discovered.  If you are so paranoid it's best to abandon these devices altogether. 

john stump
john stump subscriber

Let's remember these secret government Big Brother activities when SANDAG comes to the voters for more money.  SANDAG is preparing to re-UP the sales tax for more projects that include this; let's say NO!  I wonder if the voters could have a ballot initiative to prohibit these sort of activities or to get rid of SANDAG?

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

What nefarious uses do you envision for this capability? I am having a hard time being concerned.

David Barak
David Barak subscriber

Thankfully I keep my phone's BlueTooth turned off all the time, as I do with my laptop (which rarely leaves the house anyway). My vehicle doesn't have BlueTooth, so the only thing I have to worry about is StingRay and license plate tracking. Maybe I should turn my phone off completely or put it into airplane mode until I reach a destination.

The average person isn't a criminal, so to me all this obsessive data collection just indicates some level of paranoia on their part. Why are they afraid of us?

Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson subscribermember

If anyone has other areas of government they would like me to probe, please drop me email at mr@michaelrobertson.com. I promise to keep it confidential!

Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson subscribermember

@Chris Brewster There are many people that want to tell others how to live and some work in the in government and will use the power of government to get their wish. The current IRS scandal is a good example where Ms. Lerner targeted "assholes" (her words) with audits and other government intrusion. In one specific example, she learned about the whereabouts of an individual and wanted to use that as cause for an investigation and audit. There's no better illustration of exactly what I'm trying to fight than that. 


There are many other examples involving local police. They have tracked residents to gay bars and then extorted them for money to stay silent. They've stalked women. They've framed individuals. The list goes on and on. 


We all probably have some views that are opposite of what the government wants (drug legalization, prostitution, limited government, lower taxation, reduced welfare, immigration/border, sex orientation, religion, etc).  And even if your views aren't different than the government today, they might be different than the government tomorrow. History is replete with governments tracking dissenters and squashing them. 


This is exactly why we have the 4th amendment (unlawful search and seizure). Citizens must be vigilant and force government to respect its boundaries. Our freedom depends on it. 

Jeff Hammett
Jeff Hammett subscribermember

@David Barak, I don't know of any local government agencies doing wifi tracking, but there have been reports that the police department in Seattle is working on rolling out such a system.


And there are plenty of private companies tracking individuals via their wifi devices locally. It's one of the reasons so many retail stores offer free wifi.


So it isn't just bluetooth, LPRs and Stingrays, Wifi will give you up also.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Robertson: Thanks. I am lost on how Ms. Lerner's approach to reviewing applications for nonprofit status relates to this particular issue, unless it is the general view that government is bad or onerous or whatever; but I don't wish to argue that point. If this particular phone-tracking issue turns out to be unlawful and you can stop it, good for you. Based on what you've explained, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson subscribermember

@Chris Brewster Ms Lerner did many bad things. One thing she did was examine where a taxpayer's wife went and use that to try and get an audit of a citizen. 


That's a poignant example of the risk when government agents can track where citizens go. If they don't like you or your views they will monitor where you travel and then try to penalize you with government scrutiny, fines, harassment or imprisonment. 

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Robertson: Thanks. This issue of Ms. Lerner has become so politicized that I really don't believe much of anything about it at this point. I am not cowering in my bunker.

Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson subscribermember

@Chris Brewster That's a clever arguing technique that liberals use. Anytime someone criticizes them they howl "you're making it political!" Bad behavior is bad behavior. Corruption is corruption. Ms Lerner used the unlimited power of government to attack those she disagreed with. That's appalling enough, but then to claim her hard disk broke and those of 6 underlyings ALL broke and all backup tapes have vanished is such an outrageous claim that it should be appalling to all. 


I find it sad that there's still those who won't condemn these actions. I hope you're not one of them. 

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Yes, I've noticed that only liberals use unreasonable arguing techniques. I think it may be because their general perspective on life is so distorted that they have no other options. In any case, I think your piece is not about Ms. Lerner and on that issue we are unlikely to agree.

Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson subscribermember

@Chris Brewster I thought you asked for examples of the government using location data to attack citizens. Ms. Lerner is one of several examples I gave you. Here's article about cops extorting people who frequented a gay bar. http://wapo.st/1lZps1n


Anyone who uses illogical arguments should be challenged which includes liberals, conservatives or libertarians. The fact that liberals accuse all critics of being political isn't justified by illogical arguments of others. 

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Robertson: This is going very far afield, but I have to ask: Ms. Lerner is alleged to have used location data gained through some sort of wireless technology?

Kathy S
Kathy S subscriber

@Michael Robertson "Chief's Friend Accused of Extortion

By Avis Thomas-Lester and Toni Locy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 26, 1997; Page A01"

17 years ago? ......