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Home Features Thought Leadership Metadata misuse and why agencies are overconfident
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TAGS metadata, telecommunications, Reg Coutts
ANALYSIS: A telecommunications professor, and expert in one of Australia’s most famous murder cases, explains why the 61 government agencies who sought metadata access may not have an accurate understanding of its limitations.
Broader access to people’s metadata of their past use of telecommunications services has been a divisive topic of debate over the last twelve months in Australia. The argument has waged over the right to privacy, metadata misuse and the need to stop criminals but with little concern about justice.
To date in Australia law enforcement has had easy access to one form of metadata called “call charge records” or CCRs used for billing for telephone calls. CCRs that identify both the caller and the called party indicate the start time and duration of every call made. But in the case of mobile calls, CCRs contain location information on where the mobile either made or received a call. The information in the CCR is termed the “cell ID” that uniquely identifies the cell site on a base station that was used at the beginning of the call. Our police routinely access such data on request from the relevant Telco to determine the approximate location of a suspect’s mobile at the time of a call to support criminal investigations and subsequent prosecutions.
“In some cases such unchallenged ‘evidence’ has been in my opinion highly prejudicial of the case.”
However, in many cases when such information is presented in court as evidence of location, “much is made of too little” and injustice is the result. The TV series CSI would have you and the bulk of the criminal establishment believe such information was like a finger print but the reality is more complex and demands caution.
Knowledge of the particular cell site used for a mobile call of interest does provide a clue to the mobile’s location but the degree of approximation is highly variable depending on the particular radio network design and many other factors. In mobile systems cell coverage from adjacent cells overlap and a mobile does not necessarily use the closest cell site. Two mobile users on the same network standing right next to each other can register on different cell sites.
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Reginald Coutts is a former authority member of the Australian Communications and Media Authority and professor of telecommunications at the University of Adelaide. Reg now runs his own consultancy Coutts Communications
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