Mobile phone tracking
Mobile phones are effectively hand-held radio transceivers, which constantly search for signals from ‘cell towers’ or masts through which they connect to the mobile network. In order to work, mobile phones must remain in contact with the network using the strongest available tower signal.
In this sense, locating and tracking is fundamental to how a mobile phone works and to how network operators provide an effective service for their customers. By triangulating the phone’s signal using two additional towers, it is possible to locate a phone more precisely, accuracy can be further increased by combining the cell tower connections with GPS and WiFi signals.
Who wants to locate your phone?
Location services can be useful personal tools for people with smartphones. They improve the accuracy of map applications, enable geo-tagging of social media posts and can even provide alerts for location-based errands e.g. ‘get cash’ alert appears when you are within 100m of an ATM.
These are all examples of active location services, in which location information is sent from the phone at the subscriber’s request. Subscribers can turn these active location services off and on in the phone settings.
Location information can also be passively detected on a mobile phone by a third party. Sometimes this is done at the request of the subscriber via that third party. For example, applications exist that enable subscribers to locate lost or stolen phones through their WiFi signal (providing it is switched on) and their phone signal (providing it is on and connected to the network).
Similarly, companies such as MobileLocate, Creativity Software and Mobile Commerce offer services that can ‘find’ specific individuals through their mobile phone handsets. Legally these services require the consent of the ‘locatee’ to be located, meaning that parents cannot monitor their children without their children’s knowledge, or employers their employees.
Some passive location services, however, are operational without subscribers’ knowledge and without any clear indication on the phone handset.
An example is FootPath developed by Path Intelligence. This software uses strategically positioned devices to locate and track mobile phones within a shop or throughout a shopping centre, helping retailers to better understand customer browsing and purchasing behaviour and therefore optimise their layouts.
Shopping centres can also use this information to set rents for retail units, advertise events, as well as improve the siting of emergency exits and amenities. Path Intelligence claims that this kind of tracking is equivalent to the way online shops track customers’ movements and that FootPath simply levels the playing field for offline retail outlets.
The information gathered from mobile phones by FootPath are the unique numbers assigned to handsets by the network operator – the Temporary Mobile Subscriber Identifier or TMSI. They do not identify the user, their telephone number or the content of texts, phone calls or emails. This enables Path Intelligence to promote FootPath as gathering ‘anonymous’ data.
Mobile phones with WiFi receivers are also open to passive location services, otherwise known as WiFi ‘sniffing’. A recent high profile example of this concerned recycling bins installed in the City of London. These bins recorded information from nearby mobiles phones with WiFi turned on and used this to target the electronic adverts on the bins to specific passers-by. By sniffing WiFi across an area, these bins can track the movements of people/phones over time, learn their habits and enable advertisers to target particular individuals.
This kind of targeted advertising is already in use by mobile networks who use software such as AdvertWise (Creativity Software) or companies like Weve (a joint venture by EE, O2 and Vodafone) to send location-based adverts and offers to consumers when they are close to a certain ‘attraction’ (restaurant, shopping centre, theatre etc.).
What you can do
You can minimise the possibility of being tracked by commercial organisations in several ways. Firstly, turn off the WiFi receiver when you leave a WiFi zone and turn off all location services. If you want to avoid being located through your signal, you can turn this off manually or by switching your phone to ‘flight mode’ whenever possible.
Subscribers should be able to stop targeted advertising messages simply by texting STOP to a specified (free) number. If such messages continue even after you have requested them to stop, you should report this to Ofcom.
You can also:
- Disable location tracking on your phone in Location Services.
- Install an anti-tracking app like Untrackered, PrivacyFix, WhisperMonitor or PryFi.
- Turn off wifi, bluetooth and GPS.
- Don’t allow apps to access personal data or locations.
As long as your phone is connected to the network, your network operator is able to triangulate your location from your use of mobile phone masts. You can only avoid this by switching your phone off or switching it to flight mode.
Mobiles and health
British neurosurgeon Kevin O’Neill, Chairman of the Brain Tumour Research Campaign, says: “It would be a mistake to ignore the mounting evidence pointing to a link between mobile phones and risks to health, especially when we know that children are much more vulnerable to phone radiation and that there are simple measures available to help them cut their exposure. We have an opportunity now to promote safety measures, mindful of the benefits of mobile phone technology but reflecting the potentially serious risks”.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed these concerns when, in May 2011, its expert panel of 30 scientists classified mobile phone radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” after having reviewed all the existing evidence. This classification is often the first step towards an exposure being classified as probably or definitely carcinogenic. Indeed, some of the scientists on the panel argued that the higher level categorisation (“probably carcinogenic”) was already justified.
More research needed
However, WHO concluded that the lack of data for mobile phone use over time periods longer than 15 years warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk. In particular, with the recent popularity of mobile phone use among younger people, and therefore a potentially longer lifetime of exposure, WHO has promoted further research on this group.
UK charity MobileWise highlights the fact that the use of mobiles among primary school children is on the rise and that by secondary school 9 out of 10 children are using them, many habitually. MobileWise is calling for them to be informed about how to limit their exposure – including keeping calls to a minimum, texting, using headsets and keeping phones away from the groin.
It states that phone companies should actively engage in the information campaign, providing customers with clear practical advice in marketing literature, on websites and during conversation. Small-print warnings in phone instruction manuals should be replaced with clear statements in a prominent place on phone packaging.
The Department of Health has issued warnings about the risks of mobile use, recommending that under-16s use phones only for essential calls. But MobileWise criticises the Government for doing little to publicise these warnings, citing the fact that the current Department of Health/NHS leaflet has never been printed and is only available as a pdf on the Department of Health website. More information from MobileWise and the NHS
WHO gives this advice about reducing exposure levels:
- Mobile phones are low-powered radiofrequency transmitters. The handset only transmits power when it is turned on. The power (and hence the radio frequency exposure to a user) falls off rapidly with increasing distance from the handset. A person using a mobile phone 30–40 cm away from their body – for example when text messaging, accessing the Internet, or using a ‘hands free’ device – will therefore have a much lower exposure to radio frequency fields than someone holding the handset against their head.
- In addition to using ‘hands-free’ devices, which keep mobile phones away from the head and body during phone calls, exposure is also reduced by limiting the number and length of calls.
- Using the phone in areas of good reception also decreases exposure as it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power.
See our feature on the health impacts of mobile phones for more information on this.