Unfortunately, mobile phones were not designed for privacy and security. Not only do they do a poor job of protecting your communications, they also expose you to new kinds of surveillance risks—especially location tracking. Most mobile phones give the user much less control than a personal desktop or laptop computer would; it's harder to replace the operating system , harder to investigate malware attacks, harder to remove or replace undesirable bundled software, and harder to prevent parties like the mobile operator from monitoring how you use the device.
What's more, the device maker may declare your device obsolete and stop providing you with software updates, including security fixes; if this happens, you may not have anywhere else to turn for these fixes. Some of these problems can be addressed by using third-party privacy software—but some of them can't. Here, we'll describe some of the ways that phones can aid surveillance and undermine their users' privacy. The deepest privacy threat from mobile phones—yet one that is often completely invisible—is the way that they announce your whereabouts all day and all night long through the signals they broadcast.
There are at least four ways that an individual phone's location can be tracked by others.
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In all modern mobile networks, the operator can calculate where a particular subscriber's phone is located whenever the phone is powered on and registered with the network. The ability to do this results from the way the mobile network is built, and is commonly called triangulation. One way the operator can do this is to observe the signal strength that different towers observe from a particular subscriber's mobile phone, and then calculate where that phone must be located in order to account for these observations. The accuracy with which the operator can figure out a subscriber's location varies depending on many factors, including the technology the operator uses and how many cell towers they have in an area.
Very often, it is accurate to about the level of a city block, but in some systems it can be more accurate. There is no way to hide from this kind of tracking as long as your mobile phone is powered on and transmitting signals to an operator's network. Although normally only the mobile operator itself can perform this kind of tracking, a government could force the operator to turn over location data about a user in real-time or as a matter of historical record. In , a German privacy advocate named Malte Spitz used privacy laws to get his mobile operator to turn over the records that it had about his records; he chose to publish them as an educational resource so that other people could understand how mobile operators can monitor users this way.
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The possibility of government access to this sort of data is not theoretical: it is already being widely used by law enforcement agencies in countries like the United States. Another related kind of government request is called a tower dump; in this case, a government asks a mobile operator for a list of all of the mobile devices that were present in a certain area at a certain time.
This could be used to investigate a crime, or to find out who was present at a particular protest. Reportedly, the Ukrainian government used a tower dump for this purpose in , to make a list of all of the people whose mobile phones were present at an anti-government protest. Carriers also exchange data with one another about the location from which a device is currently connecting.
This data is frequently somewhat less precise than tracking data that aggregates multiple towers' observations, but it can still be used as the basis for services that track an individual device—including commercial services that query these records to find where an individual phone is currently connecting to the mobile network, and make the results available to governmental or private customers.
The Washington Post reported on how readily available this tracking information has become. Unlike the previous tracking methods, this tracking does not involve forcing carriers to turn over user data; instead, this technique uses location data that has been made available on a commercial basis. The IMSI catcher needs to be taken to a particular location in order to find or monitor devices at that location.
Currently there is no reliable defense against all IMSI catchers.
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Some apps claim to detect their presence, but this detection is imperfect. On devices that permit it, it could be helpful to disable 2G support so that the device can connect only to 3G and 4G networks and to disable roaming if you don't expect to be traveling outside of your home carrier's service area. These measures can protect against certain kinds of IMSI catchers. Modern smartphones have other radio transmitters in addition to the mobile network interface.
They usually also have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support. These signals are transmitted with less power than a mobile signal and can normally be received only within a short range such as within the same room or the same building , although sometimes using a sophisticated antenna allows these signals to be detected from unexpectedly long distances; in a demonstration, an expert in Venezuela received a Wi-Fi signal at a distance of km or mi, under rural conditions with little radio interference.
Both of these kinds of wireless signals include a unique serial number for the device, called a MAC address, which can be seen by anybody who can receive the signal. The device manufacturer chooses this address at the time the device is created and it cannot be changed using the software that comes with current smartphones.
Unfortunately, the MAC address can be observed in wireless signals even if a device is not actively connected to a particular wireless network, or even if it is not actively transmitting data.
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Whenever Wi-Fi is turned on on a typical smartphone, the smartphone will transmit occasional signals that include the MAC address and thus let others nearby recognize that that particular device is present. This has been used for commercial tracking applications, for example to let shopkeepers determine statistics about how often particular customers visit and how long they spend in the shop.
As of , smartphone manufacturers have started to recognize that this kind of tracking is problematic, but it may not be fixed in every device for years—if ever. In comparison to GSM monitoring, these forms of tracking are not necessarily as useful for government surveillance. This is because they work best at short distances and require prior knowledge or observation to determine what MAC address is built into a particular person's device.
However, these forms of tracking can be a highly accurate way to tell when a person enters and leaves a building. Turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on a smartphone can prevent this type of tracking, although this can be inconvenient for users who want to use these technologies frequently. Wi-Fi network operators can also see the MAC address of every device that joins their network, which means that they can recognize particular devices over time, and tell whether you are the same person who joined the network in the past even if you don't type your name or e-mail address anywhere or sign in to any services.
On a few devices, it is physically possible to change the MAC address so that other people can't recognize your Wi-Fi device as easily over time; on these devices, with the right software and configuration, it would be possible to choose a new and different MAC address every day, for example. On smartphones, this commonly requires special software such as a MAC address-changing app.
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Currently, this option is not available for the majority of smartphone models. Apps can ask the phone for this location information and use it to provide services that are based on location, such as maps that show you your position on the map. Some of these apps will then transmit your location over the network to a service provider, which, in turn, provides a way for other people to track you. The app developers might not have been motivated by the desire to track users, but they might still end up with the ability to do that, and they might end up revealing location information about their users to governments or hackers.
Some smartphones will give you some kind of control over whether apps can find out your physical location; a good privacy practice is to try to restrict which apps can see this information, and at a minimum to make sure that your location is only shared with apps that you trust and that have a good reason to know where you are.
In each case, location tracking is not only about finding where someone is right now, like in an exciting movie chase scene where agents are pursuing someone through the streets.
It can also be about answering questions about people's historical activities and also about their beliefs, participation in events, and personal relationships. For example, location tracking could be used to try to find out whether certain people are in a romantic relationship, to find out who attended a particular meeting or who was at a particular protest, or to try and identify a journalist's confidential source.
A tool called CO-TRAVELER uses this data to find relationships between different people's movements to figure out which people's devices seem to be traveling together, as well as whether one person appears to be following another. There's a widespread concern that phones can be used to monitor people even when not actively being used to make a call.
As a result, people having a sensitive conversation are sometimes told to turn their phones off entirely, or even to remove the batteries from their phones. The recommendation to remove the battery seems to be focused mainly on the existence of malware that makes the phone appear to turn off upon request finally showing only a blank screen , while really remaining powered on and able to monitor conversations or invisibly place or receive a call. Thus, users could be tricked into thinking they had successfully turned off their phones when they actually hadn't.
Such malware does exist, at least for some devices, though we have little information about how well it works or how widely it has been used. Turning phones off has its own potential disadvantage: if many people at one location all do it at the same time, it's a sign to the mobile carriers that they all thought something merited turning their phones off.
An alternative that might give less information away is to leave everybody's phone in another room where the phones' microphones wouldn't be able to overhear the conversations. Phones that are used temporarily and then discarded are often referred to as burner phones or burners. People who are trying to avoid government surveillance sometimes try to change phones and phone numbers frequently to make it more difficult to recognize their communications. They will need to use prepaid phones not associated with a personal credit card or bank account and ensure that the phones and SIM cards were not registered with their identity; in some countries these steps are straightforward, while in others there may be legal or practical obstacles to obtaining anonymous mobile phone service.
First, merely swapping SIM cards or moving a SIM card from one device to another offers minimal protection, because the mobile network observes both the SIM card and device together.
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In other words, the network operator knows the history of which SIM cards have been used in which devices, and can track either individually or both together. Second, governments have been developing mobile location analysis techniques where location tracking can be used to generate leads or hypotheses about whether multiple devices actually belong to the same person.
There are many ways this can be done. For example, an analyst could check whether two devices tended to move together, or whether, even if they were in use at different times, they tended to be carried in the same physical locations. A further problem for the successful anonymous use of telephone services is that people's calling patterns tend to be extremely distinctive.