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Congressman Urges Inquiry of Wireless Tracking Plan

Telecommunications: FBI seeking technology to locate cellular phone users.

September 21, 1996|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A key member of Congress rebuked the Justice Department for proposing that the wireless telephone industry adopt technology that would enable the FBI not only to tap cellular phones but to identify the location of a cellular phone user within half a second.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York, ranking Democrat on the House Crime Subcommittee, called for hearings into complaints from the telecommunications industry and civil liberties groups about an FBI proposal to use the wireless telephone network as, in effect, a powerful new tracking system.

The proposal relies on a 1994 law aimed at giving law enforcement authorities enhanced ability to fight crime in an age of digital communications.

"It's absolutely necessary to carry on our war against drugs and to fight terrorism," Schumer said.

The FBI has contended that it needs the wireless industry to provide technology to keep up with the resources available to criminals.

Congress is considering ways to raise $500 million to overhaul the nation's wireless network to facilitate the tapping of the new generation of phones under the provisions of the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. That act requires the government to reimburse the telecommunications industry for the costs of meeting the new law.

But the FBI is said to be seeking higher speed and more precise technology than is available, according to a proposal first reported in Friday editions of the New York Times. The agency wants to be able to pinpoint a cellular phone user's location within a half-second of getting a signal at any time a cellular phone is turned on, the paper said.

James K. Kallstrom, deputy director in charge of the FBI's New York office, denied that the FBI was seeking such broad new surveillance and tracking technology.

"We are not trying to change any legal standards or follow innocent people around," Kallstrom said. "We've always known the [general] locations of phones we tap, and we are not looking for pinpoint" accuracy of where someone is located.

Kallstrom said his agency was only seeking assurances that it would be able to get the same information on callers using digital phones as it can on callers using analog phones.

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