Secrecy threat over phone mast locations

· Privacy row could end website that shows sites
· Fears mobile companies may stop cooperating

Richard Wray,
communications editor
Tuesday September 19, 2006
The Guardian

The ability of homeowners and concerned parents to pinpoint local mobile phone masts, find out who owns them and how powerful they are, has been jeopardised by a spat between telecoms regulator Ofcom and privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner.

Details of the position of masts - including those for the emergency services' communications network Airwave - are available through SiteFinder, a service set up following the Stewart report into mobiles and health, on the Ofcom website.

But a ruling by the Information Commissioner has placed the site's future in doubt. After an 18-month investigation, the commissioner last week ruled in favour of a request, understood to be from a consumer group, that all the information used to compile the site be made available.

At present that data is used by Ofcom to let people find out who owns masts within about 500 yards of their front door. Searching a wider area merely shows where masts are, not who owns them. While it is technically possible to use a series of local searches to build up a nationwide map, it would take many hours and the data is updated every three months.

The mobile phone companies fear that if all the information is made readily available, it will be easy for competitors to find the "holes" in networks giving them a competitive advantage or allowing rivals to target advertising in specific areas, telling consumers to switch networks if they want better coverage.

The data is provided on a voluntary basis by the five UK mobile networks, Airwave and Network Rail, which uses trackside masts to communicate with drivers. Ofcom can only compel the operators to give data to an accuracy of 100m, which would be pointless in major urban areas where a hectare could include dozens of masts. In addition Ofcom has no way of forcing operators to divulge details of a particular mast's power.

An Ofcom spokesman said the regulator fears that if the ruling is followed, the mobile phone companies will stop giving out the information and SiteFinder will collapse. "We are concerned by the [Information Commissioner's] decision as we believe it may have the effect of removing a source of important information from the public domain," he said. "We are considering our next step." Ofcom has until October 9 to appeal.

A source close to one of the mobile phone networks said the company was very concerned about the impact of the ruling and would almost certainly stop providing information if it was implemented. Ofcom also tried to argue that divulging all information about the location of masts could put the emergency services' communications in jeopardy. But the commissioner rejected this, saying: "Although it would take longer, a determined terrorist or criminal could obtain this information from SiteFinder."

http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,,1875541,00.html#article_continue


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