It’s the year 2019, and everyone willingly carries a tracking device in their pockets. People can have their precise locations tracked in real time by the government, advertising companies, and even rogue bounty hunters. It sounds like dystopian fiction—but it’s a reality.
We like debunking sensationalist stories, but this latest controversy is true. Your phone’s precise location can be tracked in several different ways.
How Rogue Bounty Hunters Can Track Your Location
The latest controversy was touched off by Joseph Cox over at Motherboard, who gave a bounty hunter $300 and a phone number. That bounty hunter managed to find the precise, current location of the cellular phone associated with that phone number, down to a few hundred meters.
Wait, slow down: How?
Well, apparently AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile all sell data—including geographic locations associated with customer phone numbers—to a variety of sketchy third-party companies. This data might be used by the bail bond industry to track people down, for example. But there’s not much oversight, and rogue bounty hunters have access to the data. “People are reselling to the wrong people,” a source in the bail industry told Motherboard.
Here’s the sad thing: This isn’t even a new problem! The New York Times reported that this could happen back in May 2018. Cellular carriers promised to do better. For example, T-Mobile CEO John Legere promised to not “sell customer location data to shady middleman” in response to the New York Times Story back in June 2018
The good news is that AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile have all promised to stop selling this data to aggregators in response to Motherboard’s January 2019 story. And it seems like Verizon already stopped after the earlier New York Times story.
What You Can Do About It: Hope carriers stop selling your data to shady intermediaries this time, as promised.
How the Government Can Track Your Location
It’s worth emphasizing that the government itself can still get access to your location data from your cellular company. They just need to get a warrant, and they can serve that to your cellular service provider. The cellular provider can then provide your location to the government, even going so far as to provide real-time updates. (And yes, the US Supreme Court has ruled that police need a warrant to get this information!)
That all makes perfect sense. Of course, if the technology exists, the government can get access to it with a warrant. But it is quite a change from decades ago when the government had no way to track people’s real-time locations with a device that’s nearly always in their pockets.
The government doesn’t even need to get your cellular company involved. There are other tricks they can use to pinpoint your location with even better accuracy, such as by deploying stingray devices near you. These impersonate nearby cellular towers, forcing your phone to connect to them. (More US courts are ruling that police need a warrant for this type of tracking, too.)
What You Can Do About It: Nothing unless you want to stop carrying a phone.
How Advertisers Can Track Your Location
It’s not just your cellular carrier. Even if your cellular carrier perfectly safeguarded your data, it’d probably be very easy to track you thanks to the location access you’ve given to apps installed on your smartphone.
Weather apps are particularly bad. You install a weather app and give it access to your location—after all, it needs your location to show you the weather. That’s all true and above board.
But, hold on: That weather app is also selling your data to the highest bidder. After all, you probably didn’t pay money for your weather app, so it has to make money somehow!
The city of Los Angeles is suing the Weather Channel, saying that its app intrusively mines and sells its users’ location data. AccuWeather was caught sending its users’ location data to a third-party advertiser back in 2017, too—even after updating the app to remove that feature, after it was first reported! This is a pattern for weather apps in particular. It’s possible people could use this data to find weather app users’ precise locations.
Dark Sky promises it won’t abuse your location data and we like Dark Sky. But Dark Sky can only afford to do that because it charges money for its weather app up-front.
Weather apps are just one example, and all kinds of apps that request access to your location probably sell it in some way. Rogue bounty hunters can probably start getting location data from these kinds of apps rather than from cellular carriers in the future.
What You Can Do About It: Avoid giving third-party apps access to your location. As Motherboard recommends, stop using third-party weather apps and use your phone’s built-in weather app. (Here’s how to manage app permissions on your iPhone or Android phone.) Many weather apps also let you enter a Zip code or city name for the cities you want to track, which is at least better than sharing your location data.
How Your Family Can Track Your Location
Your phone is capable of determining its location and sharing it in the background, even if the screen is off. You don’t need to have an app open.
You can see this yourself if you use a service like Apple’s Find My Friends, which is included on iPhones. Find My Friends can be used to share your precise real-time locations with family members or friends. After you give someone access, they can open the app, and Apple’s servers will ping your iPhone, get your location, and show it to them. It’s a convenient way to see whether your partner is on the way home from work yet or find your friends in a crowd.
Android phones have something similar in a Google app called Trusted Contacts, and of course, there are many third-party apps that help you share your real-time locations with people.
Of course, this is only with your permission, but it just shows how pervasive this technology is. After all, it’s the same technology you can use to remotely track your lost iPhone or Android phone in case you lose it. But it’s accessible to any app that asks for access to your location in the background.
What You Can Do About It: Be careful about who you share your real-time location with.