Early on Dec. 23, 2005, Jason Cochran of Eastvale, Calif., secured his 10-month-old son Wade into a car seat in the family's SUV and left the engine idling while he ran inside to get Wade's 3-year-old brother. Moments later, Cochran came out to find the SUV-- and the baby -- gone.

When the Cochrans called 911, they told responders there was a cell phone equipped with a GPS chip in the vehicle. If police could track the phone, they could find the car. However, when the Riverside County Sheriff's Department called wireless carrier Sprint Nextel to obtain the location information, the company wouldn't release it.

Although the incident ended happily -- the thief eventually abandoned the SUV and the baby was safely returned to his parents -- it's still unclear why sheriff's deputies couldn't obtain the location data from Sprint Nextel.

Was it a case of a privacy policy gone awry or simple human error? No one seems sure, but the episode has left law enforcement and wireless carriers seeking better ways to work together when location tracking becomes life threatening.

Potentially Deadly Delay

To be sure, a wireless carrier cannot release GPS location data to just anyone.

"We do have a very strict policy on maintaining and protecting our customers' privacy," said Kathleen Dunleavy, a Sprint Nextel spokeswoman, and that policy is based on provisions in the Federal Telecommunications Act that apply to all wireless carriers.

The concern is that someone with no legal right to the information, perhaps a stalker or an aggrieved ex-spouse, may try to use GPS data to track down a subscriber.

"Given the political uproar over disclosures of call-detail records to people who later turn out to be unauthorized, we must be careful," Dunleavy said. This means making sure that if the company divulges location information, it does so strictly according to law.

Every single police department in the country has Sprint Nextel's phone number and can initiate procedures for tracking a phone in an emergency, Dunleavy said. She explained that wireless customers must sign a form, which should in turn be faxed by a police department with a note on its official letterhead so the cell phone company can verify the request's authenticity.

"We're off and can begin tracking the phone number within minutes," she said of the company's reaction after receiving the fax.

In the Riverside County situation, however, the "minutes" stretched into well over an hour.

"There was some type of paperwork delay between the sheriff's office and Sprint," Dunleavy said, and this delay -- still unexplained as of early February 2006 -- kept Sprint Nextel from tracking the phone before police recovered the abandoned SUV.

Emergency requests of this type are not uncommon.

"I think last year alone we had 2,000 requests," Dunleavy said, adding that the procedure for responding works incredibly well. "We're evaluating our policy and our procedures now; but overall, 99 percent of the time, this works flawlessly."

Human Error

A cell phone with a GPS chip can determine its own location with the same accuracy as any other GPS device. That's often within just a few feet, depending on how many satellites the receiver can "see" and on other local conditions.

Neil Lingle, Riverside County's under sheriff, speculates that human error may have caused the problem. Employees in the sheriff's Communications Division are supposed to make these kinds of requests to wireless carriers, and they did call Sprint Nextel on Dec. 23, 2005.

But so did an officer in the field. Not versed in the proper procedures, that officer may have reached an inexperienced operator.

"I'm guessing here, but I think the operator didn't recognize the degree of seriousness," Lingle said,

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer