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Mobile phone tracking

Mobile phone tracking refers to the ascertaining of the position of a mobile phone, whether stationary or moving. Localization may occur either via multilateration of radio signals between (several) radio towers of the network and the phone, or simply via GPS. To locate the phone using multilateration of radio signals, it must emit at least the roaming signal to contact the next nearby antenna tower, but the process does not require an active call. The Global System for Mobile Communications is based on the phone's signal strength to nearby antenna masts.[1]

Mobile positioning, which includes location-based services that disclose the actual coordinates of a mobile phone bearer, is a technology used by telecommunication companies to approximate the location of a mobile phone, and thereby also its user (bearer). The more properly applied term locating refers to the purpose rather than a positioning process. Such service is offered as an option of the class of location-based services (LBS).[2]


  • Technology 1
    • Network-based 1.1
    • Handset-based 1.2
    • SIM-based 1.3
    • Wi-Fi 1.4
    • Hybrid 1.5
  • Operational purpose 2
  • Bearer interest 3
  • Privacy 4
    • China 4.1
    • Europe 4.2
    • United States 4.3
      • Commercial Privacy of Location Information in the United States 4.3.1
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The technology of locating is based on measuring power levels and antenna patterns and uses the concept that a powered mobile phone always communicates wirelessly with one of the closest base stations, so knowledge of the location of the base station implies the cell phone is nearby.

Advanced systems determine the sector in which the mobile phone resides and roughly estimate also the distance to the base station. Further approximation can be done by interpolating signals between adjacent antenna towers. Qualified services may achieve a precision of down to 50 meters in urban areas where mobile traffic and density of antenna towers (base stations) is sufficiently high. Rural and desolate areas may see miles between base stations and therefore determine locations less precisely.

GSM localization is the use of multilateration to determine the location of GSM mobile phones, or dedicated trackers,[3][4][5] usually with the intent to locate the user.[2][6]

Localization-Based Systems can be broadly divided into:


Network-based techniques utilize the service provider's network infrastructure to identify the location of the handset. The advantage of network-based techniques (from a mobile operator's point of view) is that they can be implemented non-intrusively without affecting the handsets. Network-based techniques were developed many years prior to the widespread availability of GPS on handsets, see US 5519760, issued 21 May 1996  for one of the first works relating to this.

The accuracy of network-based techniques varies, with cell identification as the least accurate and triangulation as moderately accurate, and newer "Forward Link" timing methods as the most accurate. The accuracy of network-based techniques is both dependent on the concentration of base station cells, with urban environments achieving the highest possible accuracy, and the implementation of the most current timing methods.

One of the key challenges of network-based techniques is the requirement to work closely with the service provider as it entails the installation of hardware and software within the operator's infrastructure. Frequently the compulsion associated with a legislative framework, such as Enhanced 9-1-1, is required before a service provider will deploy a solution.


Handset-based technology requires the installation of client software on the handset to determine its location.[7] This technique determines the location of the handset by putting its location by cell identification, signal strengths of the home and neighboring cells, which is continuously sent to the carrier. In addition, if the handset is also equipped with GPS then significantly more precise location information is then sent from the handset to the carrier.

The key disadvantage of this technique (from mobile operator's point of view) is the necessity of installing software on the handset. It requires the active cooperation of the mobile subscriber as well as software that must be able to handle the different operating systems of the handsets. Typically, smartphones, such as one based on Symbian, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS, iOS, or Android, would be able to run such software, e.g. Google Maps.

One proposed work-around is the installation of embedded hardware or software on the handset by the manufacturers, e.g., E-OTD. This avenue has not made significant headway, due to the difficulty of convincing different manufacturers to cooperate on a common mechanism and to address the cost issue. Another difficulty would be to address the issue of foreign handsets that are roaming in the network.


Using the SIM in GSM and UMTS handsets, it is possible to obtain raw radio measurements from the handset.[8][9] Available measurements include the serving Cell ID, round-trip time, and signal strength. The type of information obtained via the SIM can differ from what is available from the handset. For example, it may not be possible to obtain any raw measurements from the handset directly, yet still obtain measurements via the SIM.


Crowdsourced Wi-Fi data can also be used to identify a handset's location.[10] Poor performance of the GPS-based methods in indoor environment and increasing popularity of Wi-Fi have encouraged companies to design new and feasible methods to carry out Wi-Fi-based indoor positioning.[11] Most smartphones combine Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as GPS and GLONASS, with Wi-Fi positioning systems.


Hybrid positioning systems use a combination of network-based and handset-based technologies for location determination. One example would be some modes of Assisted GPS, which can both use GPS and network information to compute the location. Both types of data are thus used by the telephone to make the location more accurate (i.e., A-GPS). Alternatively tracking with both systems can also occur by having the phone attain its GPS-location directly from the satellites, and then having the information sent via the network to the person that is trying to locate the telephone. Services allowing such cellphone include Google Maps. Other examples would be LTE's OTDOA and E-CellID.

There are also hybrid positioning systems which combine several different location approaches to position mobile devices by Wi-Fi, WiMAX, GSM, LTE, IP addresses, and network environment data.

Operational purpose

In order to route calls to a phone, the cell towers listen for a signal sent from the phone and negotiate which tower is best able to communicate with the phone. As the phone changes location, the antenna towers monitor the signal, and the phone is roamed to an adjacent tower as appropriate.

By comparing the relative signal strength from multiple antenna towers, a general location of a phone can be roughly determined. Other means make use of the antenna pattern, which supports angular determination and phase discrimination.

Newer phones may also allow the tracking of the phone even when turned on and not active in a telephone call. This results from the roaming procedures that perform hand-over of the phone from one base station to another.[12]

Bearer interest

A phone's location can be uploaded to a common website where one's friends and family can view one's last reported position. Newer phones may have built-in GPS receivers which could be used in a similar fashion, but with much higher accuracy. This is controversial, because data on a common website means people who are not "friends and family" may be able to view the information.


Locating or positioning touches upon delicate privacy issues, since it enables someone to check where a person is without the person's consent. Strict ethics and security measures are strongly recommended for services that employ positioning, and the user must give an informed, explicit consent to a service provider before the service provider can compute positioning data from the user's mobile phone.


China has proposed using this technology to track commuting patterns of Beijing city residents.[13] Aggregate presence of mobile phone users could be tracked in a privacy-preserving fashion.[14]


In Europe most countries have a constitutional guarantee on the secrecy of correspondence, and location data obtained from mobile phone networks is usually given the same protection as the communication itself.

United States

In the US there is no explicit constitutional guarantee on the privacy of telecommunications, so use of location data is limited by law. Law enforcement (like the police) can obtain permission to position phones in emergency cases where people, including criminals, are missing. In some instances, law enforcement may even access a mobile phone's internal microphone to eavesdrop on local conversations while the phone is switched off.[15]

A secret interpretation of The Patriot Act, confirmed to exist,[16][17][18][19] has been linked to secret widespread location tracking.[20][21][22]

Since 2005 the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been following some U.S. cases, including USA v. Pen Register, regarding government tracking of individuals.[23] In In re Application of the United States for Historical Cell Site Data, 724 F.3d 600 (5th Cir. 2013), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the government does not need a warrant to compel cell phone providers to disclose historical cell site information. In United States v. Davis (2014), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in a criminal case that obtaining cell phone location data "without a warrant is a Fourth Amendment violation.”

In 2014, it was revealed that in order to find fugitives, the United States Marshals Service has been flying small aircraft with equipment that identifies all cell phones in the area.[24]

Commercial Privacy of Location Information in the United States

The US does limit commercial use of location information under the (US) Telecommunications Act, at 47 CFR §222. The Telecommunications Act, at 47 CFR §222(f), requires consent from the subscriber, and prohibits telecommunication common carriers from accessing location information for purposes other than system operation without consent of the customer.[25] Businesses such as Locaid, which provide tracking service based on subscriber information, require mobile users' consent prior to tracking.[26]

See also


  1. ^ "Tracking a suspect by any mobile phone: Tracking SIM and handset". BBC News. 2005-08-03. Retrieved 2010-01-02. 
  2. ^ a b "Location Based Services for Mobiles: Technologies and Standards“, Shu Wang, Jungwon Min and Byung K. Yi, IEEE International Conference on Communication (ICC) 2008, Beijing, China
  3. ^ Dedicated tracker example 1: KCS Beagle
  4. ^ Dedicated tracker example 2: TraceME Micro
  5. ^ Dedicated tracker example 3:TrakDot
  6. ^ Dedicated tracker example 4:Trax
  7. ^ Handset-based mobile phone tracking app example 1: MobileTrack
  8. ^ ETSI TS 102 223 V9.1.0 SIM standard
  9. ^ Ted Gibbons (25 August 2008). "Vodafone Local Zone". PC World. 
  10. ^ "Q&A on Location Data". Apple. Retrieved 2013-03-08. 
  11. ^ Pourhomayoun; Fowler (2012). "Improving WLAN-Based Indoor Mobile Positioning Using Sparsity" (PDF). Asilomar Conference on Signal Processing 2012. 
  12. ^ Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache (6 December 2006). "Roving Bug in Cell Phones Used By FBI to Eavesdrop on Syndicate". The Chicago Syndicate -BLOG. 
  13. ^ Cecilia Kang (March 3, 2011). "China plans to track cellphone users, sparking human rights concerns". The Washington Post. 
  14. ^ D. Quercia, Ilias Leontiadis, Liam McNamara, Cecilia Mascolo, Jon Crowcroft (2011). SpotME If You Can: Randomized Responses for Location Obfuscation on Mobile Phones. IEEE ICDCS
  15. ^ Declan McCullagh; Anne Broache (1 December 2006). "FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool".  
  16. ^ Alex Abdo (16 March 2012). "Government Confirms That It Has Secret Interpretation of Patriot Act Spy Powers". Retrieved 2012-11-17. 
  17. ^ Jaffer, Jameel (2012-03-15). "Sens. Wyden and Udall Weigh in on ACLU Patriot Act FOIA Case". Retrieved 2012-11-17. 
  18. ^ Savage, Charlie (2012-03-16). "Democratic Senators Warn About Use of Patriot Act". Retrieved 2012-11-17. 
  19. ^ Ackerman, Spencer (May 2011). "There's a Secret Patriot Act, Senator Says | Danger Room". Retrieved 2012-11-17. 
  20. ^ "Atlas Bugged: Why the "Secret Law" of the Patriot Act Is Probably About Location Tracking | Cato @ Liberty". 2011-05-27. Retrieved 2012-11-17. 
  21. ^ "Stalking the Secret Patriot Act | Cato @ Liberty". 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2012-11-17. 
  22. ^ "Wyden Continues To Press Intelligence Officials About Tracking Americans Under 'Secret' Interpretation Of The Patriot Act". Techdirt. 2011-07-27. Retrieved 2012-11-17. 
  23. ^ "Cell Tracking". Electronic Frontier Foundation. n.d. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ "Telecommunications and Internet Privacy Request". 
  26. ^ "Locaid Privacy Policy". 

External links

  • Varshavsky, Alex; Chen, Mikey; Froehlich, Jon; Haehnel, Dirk; Hightower, Jeffrey; Lamarca, Anthony; Potter, Fred; Sohn, Timothy; Tang, Karen; Smith, Ian. "Are GSM phones THE solution for localization?" (PDF). In 7th IEEE Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications (HotMobile) (IEEE Computer Society): 20–28. 
  • Dan Goodin (17 February 2012). "Location tracking of GSM cellphones: now easier (and cheaper) than ever". Arstechnica (Conde Nast). 
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