Technology developments for telecommunications networks often add more challenges than benefits for lawful intelligence operations. Separating the noise from the signal in massive 5G data flows will only get more difficult as time goes on, driven by factors such as widespread traffic encryption and unprecedented diversity, from drones to the internet of things.
Against that backdrop, location data and location intelligence are dramatically enhanced in 5G networks. While limitations remain, the network technology itself provides inherent advantages over 4G and its predecessors.
Changes in Location Services Ushered in by 5G
With wireless communications largely replacing wireline, the FCC continues to enact more stringent requirements on what location information communication service providers (CSPs) must be capable of providing for mobile devices. These measures are largely to support 911 services and their need to precisely locate people for assistance who have placed emergency calls. Current law calls for longitude-latitude accuracy within 50 meters, as well as z-axis elevation data (e.g., the floor of a building the subject is located on) in major market areas. Pre-5G technologies can be slow or completely incapable of fulfilling this requirement, particularly indoors, with underground locations such as parking garages being an even greater challenge. Nearby obstacles such as buildings, walls, vehicles, and the ground, easily interfere with Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technologies. Falling back to LTE services often means that location data is not sufficiently accurate to provide a dispatchable location for responders, especially when z-axis data is needed.
The first consideration for improved location data is that 5G uses much higher frequency signals than 4G; low-, mid-, and high-band options will exist, with the high band using the highest frequency (millimeter wave) of the three and providing the highest data speeds. Higher frequency signals also provide less range between the base station (or access node) and the user equipment (UE), meaning that higher frequencies are associated with smaller cells. This higher network density means that simply knowing what 5G base station a specific device of interest is communicating with provides emergency responders or law enforcement agencies (LEAs) with far more accurate location information than 4G, with 5G cells measured in meters or tens of meters as opposed to kilometers for 4G cells.
5G’s new approaches to bandwidth management—developed to maximize speed and capacity for data handling—also provide benefits for more sophisticated location intelligence. The smart antennas implemented for 5G are in fact arrays of hundreds of small antennas working in concert. 4G networks simply transmit every piece of data outward in all directions, without regard for which direction the target device is from the tower. In contrast, 5G networks use algorithms to support beamforming, which effectively sends data beams to specific targets. Beamforming accomplishes this directional transmission by estimating the direction of arrival (DoA) for incoming signals and emulating that direction for outgoing signals by generating very small delays among the small antennas in the arrays.
In effect, beamforming divides a transmission area into small target areas, each associated with a particular beam. The 5G smart antennas can report on which beam is serving a specific UE, which supports more accurate positioning than LTE, with higher reliability than GNNS. Because this capability applies to vertical segments of the transmission area, as well as horizontal ones, beamforming can also provide accurate z-axis location data.
Location Intelligence in Practice
Just as the accuracy of location information is critical for public safety, it is also vital in lawful intelligence operations. CSPs are responsible for being able to provide accurate location information in conjunction with communication data for lawful intercept requests. Whereas device-based positioning methods such as GNSS can be disabled at the UE, the network-based methods described here have no such limitation. More broadly, the enhanced location data that can be generated using 5G networks helps enable a variety of investigative and enforcement techniques. The increased accuracy of 5G location information in particular makes such techniques more effective.
Geofencing enables LEAs to designate, monitor, and report on a specific geographic area of interest, such as a restricted area or a crime scene, generating notifications both when a subject enters the area and when they leave it. For example, if chatter arose on social media about a planned terrorist attack on a specific target, geofencing could be applied to help interrupt the attack by identifying when a subject of interest enters the immediate area of that target. Likewise, a retrospective investigation could apply geofencing to ascertain the identities of people involved or to monitor the area afterward, to notify law enforcement if any of those people returned to the area in the weeks and months that followed. The increased accuracy of 5G location provides higher confidence that a subject of interest has indeed entered or exited a geofenced area as reported, because small cells make it is less likely, for example, that a UE device outside the area of interest could be connected to a base station inside.
Location intelligence also plays a primary role in establishing patterns of behavior. For example, a vehicular homicide investigation where the subject left the scene but was later identified could be assisted with the driver’s location information. If the subject can be located at a bar for two hours immediately before the accident, that provides circumstantial evidence that intoxication may have been a factor in the accident. If it turns out to be a pattern of behavior, where that person habitually goes to a bar for an hour or two after work, that pattern of behavior helps build a stronger case, which can be developed further by added evidence from interviews with witnesses at the bar, credit card records, and so on. Likewise, meeting detection can help establish relationships among subjects of interest, based on factors such as who meets, how often, and where.
5G networks can provide more accurate location information, delivered more quickly, with more reliability and a higher degree of confidence than predecessor technologies. Even as 5G brings new challenges to LEAs, it also promises increased value and an increased role for location intelligence.
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About Michael Gebretsadik
Michael has worked in the telecommunication industry for the better part of two decades, in roles ranging from engineering to product management, and business development. He has been involved with location technology since 2003, when he joined SnapTrack (a Qualcomm subsidiary). Prior to joining SS8 in 2020, Michael was responsible for growing the global Location-Based Services business for Comtech Telecommunications through channel partners and IoT OEMs. You can learn more about Michael on his LinkedIn profile.
SS8 provides Lawful Intelligence platforms. They work closely with leading intelligence agencies, communication providers, law enforcement agencies and standards bodies and their technology incorporates the methodologies discussed in this blog. Xcipio® is already proven to meet the very high demands of 5G and provides the ability to transcode (convert) between lawful intercept handover versions and standard families. Intellego® XT natively supports ETSI, 3GPP and CALEA handovers, as well as national variants. Intellego XT’s MetaHub component is a best-in-class data analytics tool. Both product portfolios are used worldwide for the capture, analysis and delivery of data for the purposes of criminal investigations.