Homeland funds new technology to track mobile devices, verify location history

The Homeland Security Department has awarded a University of Alabama-Birmingham researcher $583,000 to develop a system for that could be used to track people through their cell phones and mobile devices.

With little fanfare, the university announced the grant to Professor Raghib Hasan from Homeland’s Science and Technology Directorate earlier this month, saying the money will be used to build a “system for verifying the location history and chorological track of cell phones and smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.”

The school explained how the technology being developed could use decentralized monitoring to verify a person’s whereabouts without running afoul of current privacy laws and requirements.

“Mobile devices can also be tracked from a centralized location, but this violates the user’s privacy,” the university explained. “A popular approach is to get a statement from location owners that the user was present, but existing systems for decentralized location tracking can be manipulated by malicious users who collude with location owners – much like a criminal with a fake alibi.”

But Hasan’s technology “collects location proofs in a distributed manner, not as a centralized tracking system. It prevents collusion by using a third-party witness, much like a real person would provide an alibi. However, instead of a Q&A session between people, this is a digital conversation that takes milliseconds,” the school added.

“A challenge is sent to the mobile device in question to validate its physical presence. A third-party witness device belonging to another user present in the same location endorses the proof of presence. This information is then stored in the mobile device’s provenance chronology to prove location history,” the announcement said.

The grant comes as the U.S. government is engaged in a spreading war against persistent cyber attacks, especially from countries like China, that threaten American infrastructure. President Barack Obama last week issued an executive order instituting new policies and protections for addressing the cyber threat.

But the department is also facing growing questions about the implications of funding technologies that can be used to invade American privacy, such as drones for local law enforcement and other snooping devices.

The university said the new technology Hasan is developing could have wide and disparate uses. In fact, the Homeland grant includes funding research to prevent fraud in competitions and assuring consumers the origins of seafood they buy, the school said.

But Homeland’s primary interest is in national security, and preventing people from spoofing their locations or forging their location history. Hassan, an award winning researcher and director of the UAB’s SECuRE and Trustworthy Computing Lab,  offered a specific example related to the military.

“The military has many areas that require a person to pass through several checkpoints, and this app we are building will prevent unauthorized people from gaining entrance to a secure location unless they have been through the proper checkpoints,” Hasan explained.

Likewise, the technology could have applications to prevent concerns that recently surfaced at the government’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, where officials replaced two Chinese-made network switches from its computer systems because of security concerns.

“What if someone introduces a device of an unknown origin and provenance to a network?” Hasan was quoted in the university announcement as asking. “Who knows what it contains, or who had access to the device. It could have malware embedded that contains a back door to allow hackers to get in and steal classified and dangerous intellectual material.”

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