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Systems That Can Secretly Track Where Cellphone Users Go Around the Globe 76

cold fjord writes with this story about the proliferation of companies willing to sell tracking information and systems. Makers of surveillance systems are offering governments across the world the ability to track the movements of almost anybody who carries a cellphone, whether they are blocks away or on another continent. The technology works by exploiting an essential fact of all cellular networks: They must keep detailed, up-to-the-minute records on the locations of their customers to deliver calls and other services to them. Surveillance systems are secretly collecting these records to map people's travels over days, weeks or longer ... It is unclear which governments have acquired these tracking systems, but one industry official ... said that dozens of countries have bought or leased such technology in recent years. This rapid spread underscores how the burgeoning, multibillion-dollar surveillance industry makes advanced spying technology available worldwide. "Any tin-pot dictator with enough money to buy the system could spy on people anywhere in the world," said Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International.
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Systems That Can Secretly Track Where Cellphone Users Go Around the Globe

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  • Re:Storm in a teacup (Score:5, Informative)

    by WillAffleckUW ( 858324 ) on Monday August 25, 2014 @12:51PM (#47748981) Homepage Journal

    Not true.

    The basis of triangulation is you get pings on multiple cell tower logs, it decides which cell tower serves you, but you show up in all of the traces.

    With three or more point sources it's fairly easy to pinpoint your location, and when you turn on Bluetooth and wireless we get additional data that allows us to locate even your elevation.

    And there's more, but I'm not supposed to talk about what we can do to your actual phone.

  • by ei4anb ( 625481 ) on Monday August 25, 2014 @12:57PM (#47749039)
    When I read about such techniques in a presentation from the 25C3 conference in 2008 it was not news to me even then. []
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 25, 2014 @01:10PM (#47749155)

    The surprising part (to some people) is not that the provider knows where you are but that anyone who knows SS7 can submit query like "where is 1-123-456-7890?" to the cell network and the provider will tell them.

  • Re:Storm in a teacup (Score:5, Informative)

    by psergiu ( 67614 ) on Monday August 25, 2014 @01:10PM (#47749157)

    If you remember a little device from 2007 called iPhone - it introduced a "novel" idea: Let's find out where we are based on the nearby cell towers - we get a list of nearby cell towers and distance from them (can be computed: power & ping delay) and we ask a central data base where the tower location is and we triangulate based on that.

    The Cell ID location databases are still active and public (and used for AGPS [] in the newer iPhones and other devices). And even if you cannot access it, by just driving around with a GPS-enabled device and some logging software you can build your own map.

    And the cell locations are NOT changing frequently. It costs A LOT to have a tower in place: the only things that are changing once a tower is in place is the antennas (orientation and type/spread) and back-end network hardware (upgrades from 2G cards to 3G to 4G ...)

  • Re:Storm in a teacup (Score:4, Informative)

    by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday August 25, 2014 @01:20PM (#47749249)

    rare to have the data that maps Cell ID's to locations for every cell tower in a country

    I'd expect that data to be readily available at some point in the cellular system. Otherwise, how would they route an incoming call to a cell phone to the proper tower? As you move, your phone continuously 'checks in' with the nearest towers. Depending on the definition of 'where cell phone users go around the globe', that will probably satisfy most nosey governments.

    If they need better resolution, they could craft a special SMS message tha would not cause your phone to display any activity, but would provide an acknowledgement with triangulation data to the message originator.

    As far as knowing where the cell towers are; in the USA that's a matter of public record [].

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 25, 2014 @01:23PM (#47749281)

    The "surprise" is that this data is available to seemingly unrelated parties who aren't even state actors. The only data sufficiently protected by the phone system is payment data, because that's what the operators, and by extension the designers of the system, care about.

  • Re:Storm in a teacup (Score:5, Informative)

    by psergiu ( 67614 ) on Monday August 25, 2014 @01:32PM (#47749373)

    Actually, that's part of the GSM protocol.

    You can "ping" a device in th GSM network and that device will return a reply containing the current Cell ID and distance from the tower. And with some devices you can "ask" them to seek a different cell - and it will return that as the reply. The owner of the phone only sees the cell signal bar fluctuating.

    Also over the course of a phone conversation, both devices will tell the other one the Cell ID at the beginning of the call and at every hand-over between cells.

  • by retroworks ( 652802 ) on Monday August 25, 2014 @01:37PM (#47749403) Homepage Journal
    Here is a website where you can see how your android phone tracks your movement. You have to be logged in, which means it's about as private as a gmail account, however private that is. Tracked me in Europe last month, where I only used the wifi and GPS (but drew point-to-point crow flies lines, as compared to USA highway lines) []

Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty. -- Plato