No hiding place

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Skivers will need to think again now that a tracking system for mobile phones covers the entire country. Employees who work away from base can be pinpointed to within 100m, so any surreptitious diversions from designated routes will be spotted immediately.

The Big Brother technology is being developed by Trisent Communications of Dunfermline and four location service providers — FollowGB, Future Data Systems, FoneTrack and VeriLocation — are offering it to employers. It is claimed to be cheaper than GPS tracking and more accurate than cell-ID tracking.

It works on so-called smart phones — mobiles that contain microprocessors dedicated to running software beyond basic telecommunication functions. 'We are able to run a small client program in the background on smart phones,' said Dr Gordon Povey, Trisent managing director. 'It starts up automatically when the phone is switched on. The software is only a few tens of kilobytes in size.'

The technology, called Tri-cell, was invented in Edinburgh by the UK branch of Elektrobit, the Finnish wireless and mobile phone design group, but it didn't fit into the company's core business. So Povey led a management buy-out in 2004 and developed a working prototype within months. This attracted investors, who funded software refinement.

'The program on the phone detects when it has moved location and takes a number of measurements of the signal,' said Povey. 'The data is bundled into a small packet and sent via GPRS or the 3G network to our servers, which is where the really clever bits are.'

The Trisent server works on the measurements received from the mobile, but also uses other information. It has access to data from other Trisent-enabled phones in the area and from the phone network in general. Povey is reluctant to be more specific about the techniques until the two patent applications are successful but, by analysing the three streams of data, it can generate a location for a target phone in near real time.

'It is reasonably accurate,' he said. 'In London we have got it almost to street accuracy, down to 100m. In rural areas it is about 600m or so.' So an employer can see straight away on their computer screen whether a member of staff with a mobile running Tri-cell has deviated from the expected route.

Povey believes it is more accurate than cell-ID — the system of tracking mobiles by analysing the signal responses when polling them from masts. 'We can halve the errors of cell-ID in almost all circumstances,' he said. 'Regarding GPS tracking — those units need to be able to see the sky where the satellites are. Our software works almost everywhere because it just needs a mobile phone signal.'

The technology will first be marketed to fleet operators, who currently pay about £50 a month for each vehicle's GPS tracking system. Povey's location service partners are likely to offer Tri-cell packages for 40 per cent less, including a contract phone.

He is also keen for lone workers to take it up because of the protection it can give. 'The current version includes an alarm facility which the worker can trigger by pressing a sequence of keys,' said Povey. 'That will generate an alarm back at base. We are going to enhance that facility by making it simpler. The user will only have to hold a single key down for it to work.'

The mobile phone industry is aware that tracking individuals raises questions of civil liberties and has drawn up a code of conduct to reduce the risk of personal freedoms being infringed. Povey says Trisent's system complies with the code. 'The software can't be installed by anybody except the owner of the phone account, so it can't be placed on privately-owned phones,' he said.

'There is an obligation on the employer to tell the employee that the software is being installed and to explain what data will be collected and how it will be used. And a splash screen will clearly tell the phone user that the software is running. There are easier and better ways to conduct covert surveillance than to try to crack Trisent.'

In the UK, more than 500,000 phones are being located on a regular basis, and 200,000 vehicles tracked by GPS. The UK positioning market is worth over £120m and growing rapidly.