4 Services That Track You Through Your Smartphone

Philip Bates 16-05-2016

Smartphones are pretty wonderful. But for a moment, ignore the ability to message family and friends, search the web, and play games, even if it is all thanks to one handy, portable device.


As the old saying goes, “if you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” Whether you paid for your smartphone outright, or have it on contract, there’s a further price to be paid for the conveniences you use. Services can track you through your device.

The State

This is the big one, isn’t it? It’s cause for some to don tin-foil hats and others to actually just use better precautions like burner phones Sick of the NSA Tracking You? Burn Them with a Burner Phone Sick of the NSA tracking you using your phone's positioning coordinates? Prepaid phones known colloquially as "burners" can provide you with partial privacy. Read More .

Remember the 1998 film, Enemy of the State in which Will Smith is on the run after being framed for murder by National Security Agency (NSA) officers? Smith’s character has to be debugged before the most famous chase scene ensues. Nowadays, he’d have to ditch his cell phone too. Indeed, the NSA wasn’t a huge fan of the movie when it was released, with one official reassuring the public that they’re not the Bad Guys:

“Unfortunately, truth isn’t always as riveting as fiction and creative license may mean that ‘the NSA,’ as portrayed in a given production, bears little resemblance to the place we all work.”

After whistleblower, Edward Snowden’s revelations Hero or Villain? NSA Moderates Its Stance on Snowden Whistleblower Edward Snowden and the NSA's John DeLong appeared on the schedule for a symposium. While there was no debate, it seems the NSA no longer paints Snowden as a traitor. What's changed? Read More about surveillance — including PRISM What Is PRISM? Everything You Need to Know The National Security Agency in the US has access to whatever data you're storing with US service providers like Google Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook. They're also likely monitoring most of the traffic flowing across the... Read More — many still view the NSA as villains. Those same people will be even more troubled by the fact that your smartphone is giving away your location.

When it searches for Wi-Fi access, your device constantly sends out data, including your Media Access Control (MAC) address IP and MAC Address: What Are They Good For? The internet isn't so different from the regular postal service. Instead of a home address, we have IP addresses. Instead of names, we have MAC addresses. Together, they get the data to your door. Here's... Read More – a personal identifier that could be used to determine when you enter and leave a building. Even turning off your Wi-Fi won’t work as your phone will try to connect with cell towers — including fake 2G towers 4 Things You Must Know About Those Rogue Cellphone Towers Read More used by the NSA — and that information would be stored by your network provider.


State security services can request such information (and not just in the USA either: thanks to the so-called “Snooper’s Charter,” How Britain's "Snoopers' Charter" Might Affect You British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to resurrect the "Snooper's Charter", a privacy-breaching set of new measures to enable enhanced monitoring of communications by the security services. Can it be stopped? Read More call and internet data for UK citizens is also stored for at least 12 months), and continually triangulate your position.

The Police

By extension, the police can trace your location either in real time or after the event — or at least in some circumstances. Cell site location data is a handy tool in the police’s arsenal: such evidence can prove a suspect was in the vicinity of crime scenes.


As well as tracing smartphone locations using cell towers, law enforcers can use devices that act as a “middle man” between the cell phone and the service providers’ towers. These track a smartphone via its International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI), a unique identifier — typically 15-digits — found on all phones that connect to networks, or Electronic Serial Number (ESN).


Such IMSI-catchers can be fitted to cars, airplanes, and helicopters.

The problem is, the law regarding this matter is often a gray area, especially when cases make it to court. It’s up to individual states to determine whether cell site location data can be permissible without a warrant. In some states, like Illinois, New Jersey, and Indiana, a warrant is needed for real-time tracking but not retroactive inspections; in others, including California, Utah, and Montana, police need a warrant for both.

Some states haven’t even made binding decisions. And for much of America, location information is completely unprotected. This worryingly long list includes Washington, Arkansas, New Mexico, Alaska, Wisconsin, and Idaho.

This data could be the cherry on top for a prosecutor, but The New Yorker‘s Douglas Starr says it’s not always so clear-cut:


“Rather than pinpoint a suspect’s whereabouts, cell-tower records can put someone within an area of several hundred square miles or, in a congested urban area, several square miles. Yet years of prosecutions and plea bargains have been based on a misunderstanding of how cell networks operate.”

Google Maps

Many of us use Google Maps How Does Google Maps Work? Google Maps is used by millions of people every day and you might be one of them, but how does it actually work and how does Google maintain its accuracy so well? Read More to save serious expense on a satnav Smartphone vs Sat Nav: Should You Buy a Dedicated GPS Device? Is there still a good reason to buy a dedicated in-car sat nav, or a handheld GPS for outdoor use? Read More , but that means location-based data is constantly being sent out and collated. Since July last year, however, Google has become more transparent about this, changing the Location History folder to Your Timeline, allowing you to check where you’ve been in the last few days.

It comes in handy if you’re frequently forgetting routes — or which bars you visited the night before…


As an added bonus, if you’ve lost your device Find My iPhone for Android? Meet Android Device Manager Jealous of the iPhone's Find My iPhone app? Well, lucky for you there's an equally awesome app for Android called the Android Device Manager! Let's take a look at it. Read More but your phone is off or Find My iPhone How to Track and Locate Your iPhone Using Location Services You can track your iPhone and share or find its location using the iPhone Location Services feature. We show you how. Read More is disabled, you can check your Timeline online and hopefully find your smartphone’s last known location.


But considering all the things Google knows about you Five Things Google Probably Knows About You Read More , it’s creepy that the search engine knows which trails you typically walk, which places you frequent, and based on regularity or settings, where you live and where you work The One Google Maps Feature Every User Should Be Using If there's one trick you ever learn to boost your Google Maps productivity, let it be this one. It's so easy to do, you have no excuse not to! Read More .

You can, at least, delete data from specific days or even individual points on the map without getting rid of all the other counters.

Alternatively, you can simply order the app not to collate your information. On iOS, you simply need to open the app, and go on Settings > Privacy > Location > Location History, then tick Do Not Store. On Android, you can use pretty much the same method, but further disable the ability for your whole Google account or specifically on any of the listed devices.

Otherwise, you can deny the app access to your location… but that does completely defeat the point of it.

Shops and Malls


Let’s say you’re debating whether to buy a shirt. You wander away, but you’re drawn back to it. Then your phone urges you on: there’s 10% off in the clothing department. Sold! And while you’re at it, you might as well get a new pair of jeans too…

However, we might feel differently if any such discounts were offered Automatic Coupon Finders - Do They Really Help You Save Money? Like many good things in life, coupons and promo codes are elusive. Saving money is never an easy thing, after all, and when you’re trying to find valid codes for something specific, you usually end... Read More at ransom for your personal information, notably your retail habits. This is all about market research — or more specifically, Wi-Fi analytics. It means a retailer can track its customers around a store, understanding how their clientele circulate in order to improve the flow of the shop, and further to push them into making decisions about their purchases. Your phone is making your mind up for you.

More than 90% of American consumers use coupons each year, and this is fuelled by impulse buying, which generates an estimated $4 billion in sales each year in America alone. Kit Yarrow, who studies consumer psychology at the Golden Gate University, says:

“People tend to purchase impulsively for one of two reasons: an exciting product or an exciting price. A decade ago, a swoon-worthy product was usually the cue. Today, people are more likely to swayed by jaw-dropping prices… Wait 20 minutes before buying. It takes about that long to ‘cool off’ when we find a hot purchase.”

But if you get a tantalising offer via your phone The 7 Best Coupon Apps for Deal Hunters Here are the best coupon apps for Android and iOS to help you save big on the products you buy all the time. Read More in that time period, it might just sway you into parting with your cash.

In order to save your data usage, your smartphone sends off signals to automatically connect to free Wi-Fi How to Get Free Wi-Fi Almost Anywhere Public wireless networks are becoming more and more popular as a means of attracting people to a particular business or service, and this is just one of the many ways in which free (or almost... Read More . Retailers use beacons located around stores to determine your whereabouts, and make those offers. Fortunately, all you need to do is turn off your Wi-Fi.

Keeping Track?

With any modern-day convenience, there will be pros and cons, and being traceable is a side-effect of having a smartphone with you wherever you go.

It’s not always a bad thing: it can act as a GPS, it can help the police, and it can result in some great offers at your favourite stores. Nonetheless, it’s understandable if all this makes you somewhat creeped out.

Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Have you taken extreme measures to avoid detection? Do you carry a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four with you instead of a smartphone? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credits: Holding a map by Veles Studio via Shutterstock, Police by John Leachfamous on google maps? by Colin Mutchler; and two girls in the streets of Vienna by x1klima.

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