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Cell tower data may be misleading

Cell tower data may be misleading


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There is growing alarm that insurance companies — and even law enforcement officials — may be misusing cell-phone/cell tower data.

The concern: Officials are treating tracking data as far more reliable than it really is. As a result, innocent people are being placed near the scenes of crimes, leading to false accusations, denials of insurance claims, and even arrests.

The Associated Press has investigated the problem.

According to experts interviewed for its story, a phone can be up to 20 miles away when it “pings,” or connects with, a cellphone tower.

Just because a tower records a connection with a phone doesn’t mean that the phone is nearby. Yet some officials are assuming that a “ping” indicates proximity — and are using that assumption to question the innocence of cell-phone owners.

Many investigators argue that cellphone connection data can be quite accurate.

Yes, in some instances. But it also can be quite in accurate. Such data alone should never be taken as conclusive.

Falls Church expert Michael Cherry, who once worked on the Apollo 11 moon mission, now is now chief executive of Cherry Biometrics, a computer and cellphone data analysis firm. He has worked on several cases to free people accused of wrongdoing based on cellphone pings.

Cellphone calls are not simply routed to the tower that’s closest or the one that has the strongest signal, he told the AP. Several other factors influence which tower handles the call, even including which one is the most cost-effective, he said.

Insurance companies have a vested interest, meanwhile, in finding reasons not to honor an insurance claim. They may be biased toward accepting cellphone connection data as reliable when it is not.

And if law enforcement officials are in turn biased by in-surance investigators’ conclusions and decide to pursue an arrest, the results can be devastating for people wrongly accused of crimes.

Clearly, we’re not saying that cellphone data is completely useless. But doubts are growing that it is as reliable as some investigators wish to believe. This form of “evidence” deserves a big asterisk by its side until these doubts are conclusively answered.

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