Most of us are aware that our phones contain a GPS (Global Positioning System) chips, but how much can they really track our phones?

How Can Your Phone Be Tracked? - Exposing The Truth

The NSA assembled a team called Geolocation Cell or Geo Cell, with analysts and technicians from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency with the intent of tracking people geographically in real time.

Geo Cell communicates with the CIA and US military around the world, the motto “We Track ’Em, You Whack ’Em.” quickly caught on at Geo Cell as they tracked the cell phones of al-Qaeda and other ‘terror suspects’ around the world.

Joint Special Operations Command(JSOC) called the technology “The Find” and it is reported that the technology developed could track phones even when they were turned off.  This is probably due to “feature phones” that may not fully turn off.

For example, Graham said many old “feature phones,” even when they were switched off, would have a baseband processor power up every 10 minutes or so to retrieve SMS messages, but not phone calls. “The moral of this is that just because you define the phone as ‘off’ doesn’t mean that it’s 100% completely ‘off’ all the time,” he said.
– Is That Phone Really Off? – InformationWeek

The simplest way tracking is done is by remotely installing a hidden app(application) on the phone which transmits the devices GPS location over the internet or even by SMS text messaging, all without the user knowing.  The FBI used a similar technique called a “roving bug”, remotely turning on the microphones to listen in on people.  There are publicly available apps like this for tracking your children or in case you lose your phone, or it gets stolen.

In my case, one of these apps was required to be installed as a part of my phone’s insurance.  Of course there are pros and cons to this.  The majority of these kinds of apps are not open source (publicly available code), which means we cannot check to see if the app contains any malicious code for hidden intents, however you could claim the same problem about any type of smart phone app.

While some activists argue that you should remove the battery to avoid tracking, many phones do not come with an easily removable battery, and if you did remove the battery, it would be useless as a phone for that time, and the last known location will still be recorded by your cell network, wiretapping companies like CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation) and of course agencies like the NSA, GCHQ, etc…

While some phones have the option to turn the GPS feature off, the NSA (or anyone else with enough skill) could hack your phone and turn it on without you knowing using an internet connection or they could use another tracking method.

How Can Your Phone Be Tracked? - Exposing The TruthAnother common way that your location can be gathered is through WiFi.  It was reported in 2010 that Google maps Street View cars were recording WiFi network information like MAC (Media Access Control) addresses and SSIDs (Service set identifications) as well as their 360-degree maps of public roads. MAC addresses usually cannot be changed and are unique to individual WiFi routers and network adapters while SSID’s (Service set identification) can usually be changed.  These SSID’s and MAC addresses are recorded and connected to the location it was recorded at onto the Google database so that computers and phone locations can be gained easier over WiFi.  This is often very accurate as their onboard computers can see when the signal strength is strongest for that WiFi connection.

Just to clarify this does not only apply to public, password free WiFi that you can use at Starbucks.  An SSID and a MAC address can usually be gained (if not hidden) without the need for any password as they are usually publicly broadcast, so if your property is on Google maps Street View, it is very likely that your WiFi connection has been scanned and is in the Google database.

Laptops, cellphones and tablets often use WiFi to connect to the internet and once setup you may forget that it is connected.

But what about if you just use 3G or another cellphone network based internet connection which are now the default for Smart Phones and many tablet computers?  What if your phone doesn’t even have internet capability?

Network-based techniques or GSM(Global System for Mobile communications) tracking calculate the time it takes for data to be transmitted between the phone and a range of antenna masts/base stations, the most accurate technique that we know about of this kind is called “Forward Link”.

A SIM-based technique works in a similar way to Network-based techniques but are usually less accurate, and more information about your location can be gained by the people trying to access the location data remotely, than the user via the handset itself.

OTDOA (Observed Time Difference Of Arrival) and Enhanced Cell ID, E-CellID, or E-CID are advanced technologies which also work in a similar way and are becoming more popular for 3G and 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) high speed internet devices.

Often several of these technologies are used together for the most accurate positioning techniques.  These are sometimes called Hybrid positioning systems.

A new Broadcom GPS technology which uses a low-power Bluetooth standard to help geolocation indoors called the BCM4752 has been announced and may already be in some phone models.  Broadcom claim that even if the Bluetooth beacons haven’t been setup for the indoor navigation, the new chip will use the phones accelerometer(able to count the number of steps), gyroscope, magnetometer, etc.. to do a decent job of indoor navigation, with the ‘public’ intent of finding your way through super malls, sport arenas and other large indoor areas.

This Indoor Positioning System (IPS) also uses GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), WiFi, cell phone towers, NFC (Near field communication), etc..

At present, more than 31% of mobile app developers around the world support NFC (Near Field Communication) in their software. An additional 45% intend to provide such support in their apps during the 12 months ahead, putting the technology higher on developers’ agenda than features such as voice recognition, range finder and device pairing.
– NFC Support Becomes Key Priority For Mobile App Developers – Misco News

NFC is basically an RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology being implemented into cell phones so that you could do things like pay for your parking ticket using your phone or contactless bank card, RF signals can however be picked up locally (within 10 meters), and secure information can be recorded or even copied onto duplicate devices in a very short time for very little money.

This may not seem like a big issue until you realize that contactless bank cards use the same technology and have been shown to be incredibly easy to clone, it’s called card skimming and a very large amount of contactless bank cards do not state that they use any contactless technology, nor has the ‘customer’ been made aware of the active technology.

You can block RFID signals using aluminium foil or RFID blocking wallets, and it’s been reported to us that a sealed steel container may be able to also block even SMS text messages, however like most of the above methods of tracking, once you start blocking the signals, your phone is also much less use to you too.

Even without a phone you can be monitored automatically through the Narus software, and there are also systems which can track you based on CCTV systems alone.

More Information

Self implementation systems:

Inexpensive Cell Phone Tracking by SMS – Bright Hub

TrackingMobile.co.uk

Navizon

Prevention:

How to Stop Your Smartphone from Constantly Tracking Your Location – lifehacker

Anti-Surveillance Apps To Prevent Spies From Snooping On You – Huffington Post

How to keep your Wi-Fi location out of Google – ZDNet

Cell phone tracking companies and technologies:

OpenCellID

Devicescape

Skyhook

LocationAPI

PDF:

Mobile Phone Tracking & Positioning Techniques