• Posted on: January 13, 2021
  • Category: Technology
  • Written by:
    Leo Poon

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How Location-Based Services Can Help to Locate Mass Social Gatherings

Social Distancing and Illegal Assemblies

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our living habits. Social distancing measures have been implemented to limit the size of gatherings for months, however illegal private assemblies were reported constantly despite massive surge in COVID-19 cases. There is a restriction of enforcement practices since the police officers are mainly relying on complaints passively to locate the place of interpersonal gatherings. It is not possible for the enforcement teams to inspect every restaurant, lounge, and bar to disperse the crowds. A new measure can be adopted by the authority to solve such limitation. The location services of consumer cellular phones can be used to track the location of the cellphone owners in real time. It allows the police force to deploy the enforcement power effectively.

The distances are calculated by baselines between base stations and angles of the cellphone from the baseline, hence the phone user can be located.

Track the location of the cellphone owners in real time

It is not a new practice for the mobile network operators to track a phone by cellular network. A research commissioned by the Belgium government found that the accuracy of cellphone tracking is mainly relied on the density of the cellular signal towers. Triangulation is used to combine information collected from nearby base stations, such as the signal’s time of flight between the user’s cellphone and nearby base stations and the signal strength, in order to calculate the user’s location. Another recent study conducted by Ghent University proved that a good location tracking algorithm can achieve a location accuracy of 112m for moving bike rider by using only 3G cellular signal. In Canada, both Rogers and Fido are providing network-based services by the same approach for users to find their lost phones.

Illustration of multipath effect.

Three Major Concerns about tracking accuracy

Despite the advantages of cellular network tracking, there are three major concerns that the authorities need to consider before taking actions. The performance of the tracking accuracy can be affected by the received signal strength, obstructed line-of-sight from base station, and multipath phenomenon. It is proven that a higher density of signal towers in urban area leads to a better location accuracy. Given the fact that most complaints about illegal gathering are located at restaurants or lounges within in the urban area, the authorities will only need to calculate the multipath effect to exclude unrelated buildings. Multipath reception in urban landscape is a common example of signal interference especially when there are glass building structures nearby. It is caused by reflected or diffracted signals from nearby objects, which results in a longer time of flight of the signals and signal degradation.

Privacy & Data

When the location services are getting more popular, there are rising concerns regarding the privacy of individuals and the usage of their location data. Legal frameworks are already established to regulate the storage and use of location information. It is well-adapted for emergency situations to quickly locate people who request emergency services. On the other hand, using such location service to track citizens in advance to prevent COVID-19 transmission among family and friends may rise concern about freedoms of movements or rights of privacy. The cell phone service providers, as mentioned above, have tracking records of their service subscribers. If governments decide to only use anonymous information without knowing IMEI numbers or phone numbers to trace the phone users, the unnamed data can be used to locate mass gathering venues.

Stop the spread

It is our responsibility to stop the spread of coronavirus by following social distancing measures. When some people failed to obey the regulations, the authorities can always track the location of phone users. When the cellphone tracking practices can be adopted to actively collect unidentified phone location information, we will not lose our location-related privacy. The police officers can race to stop large scale social gatherings before the attendees run away to avoid penalty tickets.