Ukraine is using mobile tech to track protesters

Mobile phone users near protest sites received a chilling (and creepy) text messages from the government.

As Ukrainians rallied against new restrictions on speech and assembly rights signed into law by President Viktor Yanukovych a disturbing text message was sent to people among or near protesters in Kiev. 

According to a New York Times report, it read: "Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance." The wording was similar to language used in a new law that deems participation in a protest a violent crime punishable by imprisonment. 

The scare tactic apparently did little to deter protesters. Still, it illustrates the power of governments to tap into commercial technology and use it to try and control (and at least monitor) its own citizens. And government spying tactics like this will only spur more growth in the security products market.  

The technology the government needed to pinpoint these people is hardly cutting edge. It's not totally clear how the text messages were distributed since telephone providers MTS and Kyivstar denied any involvement. 

But the government could presumably use the geolocation technology built into mobile phones to identify people in a given area and at a particular time by looking at data from nearby cell towers. In the U.S., it's called "tower dumps," a tactic used regularly by law enforcement. 

A congressional inquiry prompted by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., revealed there were 9,000 cell tower dumps in 2012. That figure could be much higher because not all mobile phone carriers reported. The eight major wireless carriers received 1.1 million requests by law enforcement for the personal mobile phone data of Americans in 2012.

While the U.S. government denies it uses that tech to track mobile phone locations domestically, it is technically possible to do so. And there's evidence that the NSA has at least toyed around with the idea. 

Just last year, the director of national intelligence admitted during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (and after a NYT story exposed the program) that the spy agency conducted a secret pilot project in 2010 and 2011 that tested the collection of bulk data about the location of Americans' cellphones. 

Thumbnail image: Flickr user Ivan Bandura

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