Wake Up Call: Location Services On Your Smart Phone Finally Demystified

Recently, I was chatting with a friend and asked her what her biggest tech related concern was. She said something about the locator services that are an integral part of everything from the new-ish Health App on her I-Phone 6 to Facebook, Instagram and beyond. If you too have questions or concerns about people being able to track your whereabouts, invade your privacy, etc., then today's guest blog by my friend Doug, a cybersecurity expert, is a must read.

Ever wonder who can track your whereabouts via your smartphone? Read today's guest blog to find out the answers. 

Ok, get out your tinfoil hats. Now, let me preface this by saying that I am the seventh most boring person on the planet Earth. This guy named Graham moved past me to sixth last month after he didn’t move from his chair for 20 straight hours. 

We (that’s the royal “we”) seem to worry a lot about the government tracking us. I get asked questions like “Can the police track my iPhone?”  “Do the inflation stems on my tires use wifi?”  or “Can the alien implant chips in my head be tracked by the State Police?”. Understand, I don’t worry about them tracking me, it isn’t very hard. So “Can they?”

Well, the answer to all of this is, “Yes, of course they can.” I mean, you can turn on “Track My I-Phone” and see for yourself that you can track your phone in the world. So, if you have geo tagging turned on, you can track your phone yourself. You can even be tracked by looking at the geo tags on your pics on facebook and the times they were posted. But can the police do it?  Well, that brings up several interesting questions: 1) Why would they want to track you? What are you doing that makes you so interesting? 2) Is it legal for them to do so?

Let’s agree that since you are carrying around a device that has an identifier chip, a unique address, and constantly communicates with both cellular and wifi networks, that it is possible to track your phone. I concede the point. Yet, in the United States, there is the fourth amendment which guarantees a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. This means if you stand naked in front of your window and someone sees you, well, that’s on you (and if I or Jack Nicholas do it, well that’s on you too).  If you close the curtains and they use a flexible camera to thread through a vent to watch you, that’s a problem. Title III of the US code basically says that law enforcement have to go through a lot of hoops to “wiretap” you. But, a recent case called “The United States vs. Davis” said that since you share cell phone location data willingly, the police don’t have to go through these hoops to get to this data, but wait??? Where does the data come from exactly? It comes from commercial cell phone providers. This means that the police have to request this data from them and wait until it is provided. They may even have to pay for it. What if the provider declines? Well, then they have to go to court to get a warrant (back to the hoops) to compel them, but that’s a lot of work. (See Number 1 above.)

So, just what are you up to? Can the police track you? Yes. There are historical records of the cell phone towers where your phone connected as you moved around. This means that someone could find out that you really did go to the casino when you said you went to church. But to me, the question is the same as in all conspiracies, why? The police have plenty of work to do chasing bad guys and don’t usually have enough time to spend going to court and requesting records from various providers to trace your history just because they are bored (and the court wouldn’t grant that anyway). Can your phone be tracked? Of course it can. Can I put a tracer on your car? You bet. Can a drone follow you through Boston traffic? I think so. “Skynet activate.” (See nerd reference dictionary.)

So, What can you do? Well, you could take your phone, toss it off the George Washington Bridge and be done with it. Live in a bunker in Oklahoma. That will work so long as you don’t use credit cards or call anyone. You can turn off your phone that might work. If it’s really off. You can take the sim card out (You know how to do that, right?). You can put your phone in something called a Faraday bag (test it though). But why? We live in an age of increasing surveillance (I am a fan by the way.). 

There is a guy with an iPhone on every corner. Someone gets the video. Oops. Traffic cam?  Busted.  Security cam on the bank atm, it’s watching. Casino surveillance system, gotcha. But unlike all those shows on television where some genius hacks into the traffic cam system of three states and accesses all the video frames and finds you quickly, then reassembles all that into some sort of explanation, mostly this is hard, expensive, time consuming work. Now, I know you are exciting and much more interesting than Iam. So maybe I hack your ‘Find My iPhone’ account by guessing that your password is “BigTeddyBear101” since that’s your user name. Then I can follow you around all day (Watch out Taylor Swift...Just kidding.). So, it’s worth thinking about, especially in the context of bad guys doing this. If you are worried about someone doing this to you for criminal or threatening reasons (like say, domestic abusers), that’s scary and you should seek assistance. I have a tough time with it since the security side of it (meaning someone else that you trust can track you) has to balance the threat that someone else can see it.

Again, if you are worried that someone is tracking you for nefarious purposes, take precautions, but if you are worried about the police, and you aren’t doing anything illegal, than I wouldn’t worry too much. Be glad someone can find you if they need to or if you leave your phone in the bar. I am a lot more worried that hackers are going to attack my car’s brake system. Until then, place one sheet of tinfoil around each ear and fill your pockets with mothballs and you should be protected.

More About Doug

Doug White is the Chair of Cybersecurity and Networking programs at Roger Williams University. He has worked in the technology industry for many years and specializes in networking, disaster, forensics, and security. He has been paid to break into buildings, talk tech people out of their usernames and passwords, steal money, and figure out horrible scenarios like “What is if a rabid shark swarm was caught up in a tornado while a core meltdown occurred? Could we still watch Netflix?” Doug has a PhD in Computer Information Systems and Quantitative Analysis from the University of Arkansas, is a Certified Computer Examiner, A Cisco Certified Network Administrator, A Certified Information Systems Security Professional, and a licensed private investigator. 

To read Doug's other guest blog for PattyJ.com, click here.


Photo Credits: All photos by Ashley Farney. To see more of her work, click here.