Who’s Tracking Your Smartphone?

How often do you use your smartphone?

If you’re like nearly 80% of smartphone users, you have your phone with you nearly 24/7. Many of us can’t sleep without them by our sides, and they’re the first thing we check when we get up in the morning. Almost a third of us can’t imagine living without it.

Hard to believe that such a ubiquitous device hasn’t been around all that long. While the telephone has been around in one form or another for well over a century, and cell phones for a few decades now, the smartphone is still very new. The first modern touchscreen smartphones were the iPhone, launched in 2007, followed by the launch of Android OS in 2008.

But in just a few short years, the total number of people using smartphones worldwide has already surpassed a billion. Smartphone usage around the world is rapidly approaching 50% of the entire world’s population. We use our smartphones constantly for daily activities like chatting with friends, banking and shopping, and even monitoring our health. There’s an app for everything you can think of, from drunk dialing prevention, to detecting paranormal activity, and more.

Since our phones are always by our sides, they reveal a lot of information about us.

And even though they haven’t been around that long, there are already those who’ve learned to take advantage of all that information.

You’ve probably heard that the NSA has been spying on smartphones, reading our texts and emails and even tracking our movements.

But they’re not the only ones. With the wealth of easily accessible information about you that your smartphone can provide, many businesses, organizations, and others have learned to use that data to their own ends.

Here’s who’s doing the spying, and what steps you can take to keep your personal data private.

Smartphone Tracking

Who’s Tracking Your Smartphone?

Companies, government organizations and criminal hackers use intrusive methods to harvest data from smartphones. Worst of all, many of these tactics occur without the smartphone user’s knowledge and consent.

By following these steps, you can limit the amount of data that can be accessed and travel without your movements being tracked.

What’s the Problem?

Organizations can easily tap into smartphones to access personal data, track movements and make assumptions based on behavior.

Who’s Tracking Your Smartphone?

Government Agencies

  • Monitoring interactions between individuals through devices e.g. which devices intersect with one another, when, and who they belong to.
  • Tracking people’s activities in protected spaces
    • Private homes
    • Hotel rooms
    • Medical facilities

Retail Stores

  • Track movements in stores using Wi-Fi signals
  • Use app information to determine specific demographics
  • Determine store lay-outs using behavioral statistics

Hackers

  • Steal personal information
  • Identity theft
  • Devices being taken over remotely

What’s the Issue?

Invasion of privacy

  • Collecting personal data for marketing purposes.

Unwarranted surveillance

  • Tracking and saving data on innocent individuals.

Court Orders

  • When served a subpoena, cell towers must divulge user location data.

Security Breaches

  • Access to personal data such as banking, communications and private information.

Anyone Can Be Tracked

Even if you have a 10 year old Nokia, your location can still be triangulated.

How Do These Trackers Work?

What’s being tracked on Smartphones?

  • Speed
  • Date
  • Encounters with other devices
  • Time
  • Trajectory
  • Location

Tracking through WiFi

  • Companies like Skyhook tap into your WiFi signal to track location, movements in stores and track advertisement engagement.

Tracking through Bluetooth

  • Even if WiFi is disabled, your phone’s Bluetooth signal can give away your location, expose the files on your phone, or even receive files and communications from other devices.

Tracking Powered Down Mobiles

  • Since 2004, the NSA has been able to access and record data from your phone even when it is powered down. Dubbed “The Find” by special operations officers, it was first used for counter-insurgency measures in Iraq.

How Can It Be Avoided?

  1. Disable Location Tracking

    Apple iPhone:

    1. Go to ‘Settings’
    2. Go to ‘Privacy’
    3. Go to ‘Location Services’
    4. Scroll to the bottom and click on ‘System Services’
    5. Click on ‘Frequent Locations’
    6. Uncheck ‘Improve Maps’ and ‘Frequent Locations’

    Android:

    1. Go to Settings
    2. Go to privacy and location settings
    3. Uncheck boxes next to location tracking permissions
  2. Anti-Tracking Apps

    iPhone:

    • Untrackered – Jailbreak app that runs in the background and cleans up any location history saved to your iPhone.

    Android:

    • Chainfire’s Pry-Fi – turns off Wi-Fi tracking without turning off Wi-Fi features to stop tracking.
    • PrivacyFix – prevents tracking from stores and advertisers.
    • WhisperMonitor – designed to help users understand how certain apps on their devices collect and transmit data. Provides an interface that lets them make changes.
  3. Blackphone

    A smartphone designed for privacy:

    • Secure and custom operating system
    • Anti-theft features
    • Disables Wi-Fi, except in trusted places
    • Secure communication
    • Share securely
  4. Stop in store tracking
    • Turn off Wi-Fi
    • Turn off Bluetooth devices
    • Turn off GPS
    • Don’t allow apps to access personal data or locations

With so many organizations looking to exploit unsecured data, users unfortunately have to accept that they will likely be tracked. Turning off location services Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can only offer a finite amount of protection. Location tracking like Skyhook, or an easily obtained subpoena can track your phone.

And with the NSA now able to infect phones with Trojan malware that monitors powered down phones, the average smartphone user has minimal control over invasive tracking.

Sources

  • My Phone at Your Service – ftc.gov
  • Here’s How Others Can Easily Snoop on your Cell Phone – forbes.com
  • Blackphone – blackphone.ch
  • This Android App Turns off Wi-Fi tracking Without Turning off Wi-Fi – bgr.com
  • Attention, Shoppers: Store is Tracking Your Cell – nytimes.com
  • How Retailers Use Smartphones to Track Shoppers in the Store – npr.org
  • NSA Tracking Cellphone Locations Worldwide, Snowden Documents Show – washingtonpost.com
  • GPS Weakness Could Enable Mass Smartphone Hacking – technologyreview.com
  • How to turn off location-tracking on a Google Andriod phone – pcadvisor.co.uk
  • How to Stop Your iPhone from Tracking Your Every Move – bgr.com
  • App Looks to Block Mobile Location Tracking, But It Won’t Stop the NSA – bgr.com
  • Untrackerd Destroys your iPhone’s Tracking Data – lifehacker.com
  • An App to Stop Tracking – technologyreview.com
  • Skyhook – skyhookwireless.com
  • Who Has The Right To Know Where Your Phone Has Been? – npr.org
  • NSA Can Reportedly Track Phones Even When They’re Turned Off – slate.com

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Discussion

2 Comments to “Who’s Tracking Your Smartphone?”

  1. If an iPhone is “powered off” the system software (iOS) is turned off and not working. How is it possible for the NSA or anyone else to track your phone or download information from it during this time? Someone, it seems, is misinformed.

  2. Very well written. I have been having loads of problems with my android. It started about 2 months ago. I received 2 text messages with a bunch of numbers that I deleted. But it didn’t matter. My phone began turning on and lighting up by itself. It got super hot. My Bluetooth and WiFi turned on by themselves. I began to have a lot of snapping and popping in my phone conversations and the phone sounded like an echo. I have been in touch with Private Investigators and they don’t seem too very concerned so, I did my own thing. I am sure they have bigger fish to fry.

    Here is what I did…

    I purchased an application lock app from Norton and locked everything down on my phone. I also purchased Norton cell phone security and malware scanner. The scans are run daily. Still, even with everything locked and scanned…the hacker or stalker figured out my pin number in less than a week and a half. I meant to mention that I believe this hacker got into my phone through some sort of the latest technology without having my phone in hand. By the way, changing the phone number does not help.

    Anyway, after the hacker got in again after they figured out the pin and then everything started all over again. All of this made me realize I needed to change the pin probably every week or less. This is very hard to deal with and I feel some stress and I am tired of carrying around a computer in my hand. But, I feel I am smart and can outthink the bad guy. It sort of feels like a football game – defense and offense.

    After my job has changed in the next 1 1/2 years – I will be going back to a flip phone.

    I don’t believe my hacker will quit trying to get in my phone – but I did one thing more – I locked my sim card and for the moment – all is somewhat quiet. This weekend, I have taken the battery out of my phone it will stay out for 2 days – which will really irritate the perpetrator, don’t you think!? And I plan on changing out my sim card in the near future.

    Granted all of these things are really annoying to have to do – but when it is blissfully quiet on my phone and the phone is cool to the touch – I am actually able to breathe a sigh of relief.

    Your article is very helpful and I plan on looking into the privacy fix and Chainfire’s Pri-fi

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