Apple Wants To Block Police Phone Tracking

John Lister's picture

Apple wants to patent a technology that would make it harder for police to track people's location through their phone. The technology wouldn't make messages and calls secret, but rather make it harder to prove who owned the phone in question.

The patent is for end-to-end encryption for the mobile subscriber identification number (MSNI). That's part of a longer number that also identifies the country and mobile network a phone is registered to

What's important here is that the MSNI identifies the specific handset. Police could then force a mobile carrier to hand over the details of the individual who owns and operates that handset. (Source:

The main use for the MSNI is for mobile networks to locate a handset when the user is receiving a call and then figure out the best route through cellphone towers to make the connection. Apple's patent would completely encrypt the MSNI as it is being passed back and forth through the air. (Source:

'Stingray' Device Tricks Handsets

That would help overcome the use of devices so-called "Stingrays," which effectively pose as a cellphone tower and try to establish a connection with a targeted phone. They can then locate the phone's precise location and intercept calls and messages.

The devices are fairly bulky and aren't cheap. To use the device, the operator needs a rough idea of the general area where the target phone is. For this reason they are most commonly used by law enforcement, though they could also be used by intelligence services or for corporate espionage, targeting a specific individual.

Apple Tech Would Raise Legal Barriers

One big criticism of the Stingray device is that they "suck up" the data of all calls in the area, threatening the privacy of innocent bystanders. There's also a risk that the data collected in this way could be breached.

If the MSNI was encrypted, Stingray devices could still intercept data. However, it would be difficult to be certain which handset it came from. It might also make it impossible to use the data as evidence in a prosecution or when applying for a search warrant.

What's Your Opinion?

Would Apple be acting responsibly if it used this technology? Would it affect the balance between privacy and security? Should police use Stingray devices at all?

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gmthomas44_4203's picture

If you don't have anything to hide, then why would you be for denying law enforcement from lawfully seeking info? There should be a requirement for having a warrant. If you have proprietary info, there are plenty of encryption means for sending such.

davolente_10330's picture

"If you don't have anything to hide". Hmm. I thought that old chestnut had gone out of the window years ago, along with the ark. Why should complete strangers have access to your private information? There's always the one (or more!) rotten apple who may use your data for nefarious activities or there's always the problem of hackers. In my opinion, "gmthomas44_4203" is totally wrong and appears to be living in the dark ages if he thinks that all is well, with the world and his wife having access to the population's secrets. A definite no-no from me on this one.

russoule's picture

Actually, davolent, I don't care if my wife sees my data as I also see hers. We ARE a team, you know.

What is it you are so afraid of your wife seeing? If you have been sending texts to someone you shouldn't be sending texts to, then I can understand why you might be leery of your wife, or the world, having access.

On the hand, there is a delicate balance between "privacy" and "right to investigate" and this sounds like it just might trample on the police's right to investigate. For that matter, it certainly would make Homeland Security much more difficult to determine which terrorist is talking about blowing up your house, so maybe that would work in your favor.

The truth is that whether it is a cell phone or a land-line or snail-mail or just watching the movements, the police must have a reason to look/examine/intercept and that meansgetting a warrant from a judge. Therefore, all the privacy protections remain even in listening to cellphne conversations. This kind of "protection" is just like the refusal to give police the ability to open a cellphone that was used in a crime, aiding and abetting.

davolente_10330's picture

Disagree entirely. By the way, the term "the whole world and his wife" is just a figure of speech. You seem to have taken it literally. This is the thin end of the wedge, where blanket surveillance takes over and people without a hint of any wrong-doing or suspicion of a crime have their data recorded or their personal details rifled through. Look at Edwin Snowden's revelations to see what I mean. It's happened already. So-called facial recognition is another example of an unwarranted intrusion of privacy. I notice you haven't addressed the problem of hackers gaining access. Would you REALLY want all your bank details and other private information to be broadcast on the net or used in some sort of scam, such as identity theft? Are you living in some sort of utopian existence where no-one does anything wrong and hackers and other ne'er-do-wells don't exist? If so, tell me where it is and where do I sign up to join?

russoule's picture

I have to say I think you might be worried about someone finding out a secret that you have been keeping, based on your adamant refusal to recognize the legitimacy of police, using a warrant, investigating via cellphone or other methods, the criminal activities of a person.

All the blather about "hackers" and "scams" and "Identity theft" are red herrings. Those things are already occurring and the proposal by IPhone will not change that. In fact, by eliminating the MSIN capability to the police, it will be much more difficult to PREVENT all that hacking and id thieving and scamming, since the police will not be able to track down the culprits via their MSIN.

Is it possible to invade an innocent's privacy? Of course it is. Just like a wire-tap can do so. Or a stakeout. Or any other mechanism used by the law enforcement people to track down and arrest the lawbreakers. It is part of the nature of our culture today and demanding complete "privacy" is a foolish demand when the internet is designed to eliminate that privacy. You're trying to enforce on the law enforcement community restrictions that are not placed on the public community.

plamonica_3840's picture

looking at a list of MSINs that didn't have my device listed sure would go a long way to show I wasn't there. Not proof but it sure would toss in 'reasonable doubt'