Madeleine v Luz phone traffic

The PJ obtained files of phone traffic for Luz from all 3 operators (Optimus, TMN, Vodaphone) for the dates 2 May 2007 to 4 May 2007. This amounts to over 74,000 calls/texts in total, according to the PJ Files.

On 4 Dec 2013, Danny Shaw wrote an article for the BBC covering the status of Operation Grange, and headlined it “Madeleine McCann: Phone records may hold key, UK police say”.

The article includes lines of enquiry other than the Luz phone traffic, so here is what was said purely about that phone data.

Mobile phone records may hold the key to solving the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, detectives believe.

Scotland Yard officers are analysing data from phones belonging to people in the village at the time – 41 people of interest have been identified.

Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, who is leading the inquiry, said officers were examining a “substantial amount of data” from thousands of mobile phones thought to belong to people who were in the resort of Praia da Luz in the days just before, during and after Madeleine’s disappearance.

Police are trying to identify the owner of each phone to build up a picture of exactly who was in the area. More than 3,000 people live in Praia da Luz, while holidaymakers and seasonal workers visit from countries across the world.

“This is not just a general trawl,” said Det Ch Insp Redwood.

“It’s a targeted attack on that data to see if it assists us to find out what happened to Madeleine McCann at that time.”

‘Call timeline’

Det Ch Insp Redwood said officers had so far been unable to attribute a “large number” of mobile numbers and admitted that it was difficult to do so with phones bought six years ago on a pay-as-you-go basis.

The records also contain information on which phone numbers were dialled and when calls were made. It is thought some phone numbers might appear on police intelligence systems or be linked to criminals.

“We can see what the phone is doing, but we can’t see the text messages,” said the detective. “It shows a timeline of the call data.”

According to Scotland Yard, the phone records had been “looked at” during the initial Portuguese police investigation but not in detail.

Asked by reporters if the information held the key to the investigation, Det Ch Insp Redwood replied “It could do.”

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Peter Sommer, an expert on cyber security, said the “multi-jurisdictional nature” of the case, which would involve mobile phone companies in different countries – and the gap in time – could make it harder to track people down.

But he said “cell site data” was routinely used in most criminal court cases in the UK.

Mr Gamble said the EU data retention directive, which compels telephone companies to retain call and internet records for a period of time, was at an “immature stage” in 2007.

But he said it appeared the data “wasn’t properly or appropriately interrogated,” at the time.

In UK investigations, he would expect the data to have been examined almost immediately, he said, but the “complex nature and geography” had made it more difficult.

There is a sidebar on how this data can be interpreted. What can phone data tell us?

By Matthew Wall Technology reporter, BBC News

As mobile phones constantly send and receive data from mobile phone masts, a user’s location can be identified to within a few hundred metres using triangulation techniques. Modern smartphones with GPS built in can be located far more accurately.

Mobile phone records include the numbers of the call sender and receiver, the call duration and time. Couple this with location information and you can establish where and when callers made or received a call. This information is often used to verify or knock down alibis in criminal cases.

The difficulty for investigators is establishing the identity of the user if the phone is pay-as-you-go (PAYG) rather than on a pay-monthly contract linked to a bank account. PAYG phones, SIM cards and top-up cards can be bought in-store for cash, leaving no identifying trail for investigators to follow.

And because such phones can be lent or sold to other people, establishing exactly who made a telephone call is made even more difficult.

This is where the BBC report ends.

Let me deal with the part by Matthew Wall first. I assume he is not familiar with the PJ files, otherwise he would be aware of the analyses of data carried out with respect to the Tapas 9. None of these had information that could be used to triangulate. The closest to triangulation was when a signal passed from one mast to a second, and a reasonable assumption could be made in some instances about the location of the phone.

This triangulation idea was touted back in December 2007, when it was learned that a vast volume of phone data had been collected by the PJ team. Hailed by the media then as a breakthrough, a casual reader should deduce that it was no such thing then, and that Operation Grange has encountered difficulties in processing the data since.

The PJ files have data that appears to cover – call sender number, call receiver number, date and time, mast used, call duration, and which antenna of the mast was activated.

The antenna that was activated gives a very rough direction relating the mast to the mobile phone. A knowledge of other masts in the region allows this to be narrowed to an area, but that area is normally large. Two masts for the same operator can cover a distance of 5km (built-up) to 8km (rural), so the swathe covered by the active mast antenna is not small.

I am not aware of the procedures used in various countries at the time re PAYG phones, but the major countries involved are Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany and Holland. Then there is a host of minor countries to consider.

Let me turn now to checks re phone numbers of known criminals. If that angle has produced interesting lines of enquiry then it has taken a long time for Operation Grange to act on these.

Mr Gamble’s comments seem irrelevant. The three operators, Optimus, TMN and Vodaphone, provided all that one would expect to get in such a situation. Then applying a theoretical UK approach to a multi-country problem in Portugal involving this number of phone messages, when a comparable situation does not appear to have ever happened in the UK, does not enlighten the reader.

The problem is that Operation Grange is trying to tackle 74,000 calls and texts in an out of Luz over the 3 days of 2 May 2007 to 4 May 2007.

The bulk of data before the Madeleine story was widely aired in the media can reasonably be assumed to be driven in the main by things that do NOT relate to Madeleine’s disappearance. If there IS traffic relating to her disappearance before the news broke, it will be masked by what was going on in Luz in the period of 2 and 3 May.

Here is where Operation Grange hits a major problem. To make sense of this, to get the ability to strip off the normal traffic and identify the abnormal traffic, the OG analyst has to understand the normal workings of Luz.

Let me illustrate this with a trivial example. When we get a take-away from the Luz Chinese restaurant, we phone the order through, ask how long it will take, and pick it up at the appropriate time.

This is not a major breakthrough. It would cover a small number of phone calls made for take-aways and a few more for restaurant reservations.

It simply illustrates the point that to understand the traffic, one has to understand Luz.

Apart from a visit to dig up central Luz in mid-2014, Operation Grange does not have that experience of understanding.

Then a second obstacle is encountered, namely, that European legislation prevents the distribution of this type of phone traffic information to private individuals.

This means that people with a knowledge of Luz, such as myself, will never be allowed to see the data. Since Portuguese law prevents private individuals from investigating crimes in Portugal, my potential input is severely limited.

If Operation Grange is shelved, and the McCanns appoint more private investigators, they will be in a position to investigate from outside Portugal i.e. one of the blocks is removed. However, the other blocks are not. The McCanns and their private investigators will not be allowed access to this phone traffic data, and the private investigators will lack knowledge of the workings of Luz. That would mean the people with the legal ability to progress this angle, Scotland Yard, are at the stage of not doing so, whilst those who are active on the case are denied access to valuable information.

A bit of lateral thinking suggests the following. If Operation Grange won’t come to Luz, then Luz must go to Operation Grange.

PS On 20 Dec 07, the Mail Online reported that PJ officers were checking hundreds of residents in Luz re calls made on 3 May 2007, from 9:30pm onwards. This is the report with the triangulation story, which is erroneous. The geographical scope of masts covered also looks suspect. The PJ would be able, one presumes, to locate those people on a phone contract registered in Portugal. As to the rest…


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