Emma Thurmond

A cell tower is a raised structure, containing transmitters and receivers that create a cellular network. Cell towers cover “large service areas [that] are divided into honeycomb-shaped segments or ‘cells’—each of which is equipped with a low-power transmitter or base station which can receive and radiate messages within its parameters” (Owsley, 2013, p.3). When users want to send a message on their phone it sends out a signal and the nearest cell tower picks it up. Then, the message is sent on through a network of cell towers to deliver the message. Cell towers are able to locate a cell phone, this function is called cell tower triangulation (Owsley, 2013).
Cell towers are related to surveillance studies because this technology has the ability to pinpoint your location using your cell phone. Your location is being surveilled and data is being collected about you. For example, cell towers create “data dumps created from cell towers and POIs [Points of Interest] extracted from a popular social network service, Weibo” (Wang et al., 2016, p. 327). Weibo is a “popular Chinese social network web site…” (Wang et al., p. 328). Wang et al. used this data to identify which restaurants were most popular in the city of Guangzhou. They used cell tower data dumps to map where cell phones were and compared the data to the location of restaurants in the city. This example shows how the data collected from cell towers can promote surveillance. However, this function is not unique to Weibo and many other services make use of cell location data. The data collected by towers could later on be used to target you with advertisements to restaurants in your area or attractions that are near where you spend a lot of your time.
Cell towers are an important and powerful form of technology used for surveillance. Cell towers are a threat to users’ privacy. The “Supreme Court has found the right to privacy rooted within the Constitution based on various amendments. In the modern era, with rapid advances in technology, threat to privacy abound, including new surveillance methods by law enforcement” (Owsley, 2013, p.1). It is essential to understand the power of cell tower surveillance.


Owsley, Brian L. (2013). The Fourth Amendment implications of the government’s use of cell tower dumps in its electronic surveillance. University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, 16(1), 1-48.

Wang, R., Chow, C.-Y., Lyu, Y., Lee, V., Nutanong, S., Li, Y., & Yuan, M. (2016). Exploring cell tower data dumps for supervised learning-based point-of-interest prediction (industrial paper). GeoInformatica, 20(2), 327–349. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10707-015-0237-7.pdf


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Key Concepts in Surveillance Studies Copyright © 2019 by Emma Thurmond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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