Are you feeling like someone might be tracking your location without your knowledge? It can be a scary and uncomfortable thought, but you are not alone. There’s a surprising amount of location tracking going on when you own a smartphone.
Location tracking is the process of determining and monitoring an individual’s location through GPS, social media, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, IP address, and spyware. Cellular providers also track phone locations. A location check is triggered by many apps and is indicated by an icon on the phone’s notification bar.
Read on to find out the following:
Why Your Cellular Provider Is Tracking Your Location
We usually don’t consider how cellular phone service works. We simply subscribe to a company’s plan and start using the service.
For your phone to ring when someone calls, chime for a text, or connect you to the Internet, your device needs to be continuously connected to a cellular tower. The phone company keeps a centralized log of which phones are connected to which towers. They then route your service through the best-connected tower.
This coordination happens once every few minutes to several hours depending on factors like your usage, your movement, and the geographic location of the towers. The log of tower connections is kept for varying lengths of time based on the company’s policies.
How To Hide From Your Cellphone Company
There are a few ways to stop your phone from updating your mobile provider.
First, simply turning off your mobile device is not enough to stop it from transmitting. You need to remove the battery. Yet, many devices, mostly smartphones, also have a secondary battery. This extra battery is mainly used to keep the clock running. There is some research showing this extra power source can be used to send transmissions to nearby receivers.
Wrapping your switched-off phone in a few layers of aluminum foil will prevent any additional signal transmission or reception. This will further ensure no connectivity to your cellular provider.
As I write this article, I wanted to test this bit of research for myself.
I went to the kitchen and grabbed the roll of aluminum. I successfully called an old, pre-paid mobile while unwrapped. I then wrapped it in foil like a burrito. The second test call went to voicemail and the phone inside the aluminum did not ring.
GPS tracking has become an integral part of modern smartphones, allowing users to navigate, find nearby places of interest, and even share their location with trusted users.
GPS, or Global Positioning System, is a network of satellites that send signals to GPS receivers on Earth. These signals contain information about the satellite’s location, time, and other data that can be used to calculate the receiver’s location.
Smartphones are equipped with GPS receivers that can pick up these signals, allowing them to determine their location with an accuracy of a few meters, and possibly send that location through the internet.
There are apps that use your phone’s GPS location data to provide location-based services and improve your experience. These include navigation apps, weather apps, and even social media apps.
A list of popular navigation apps that people use to share their location with trusted ones are :
- Google Maps
- Apple Find My
- Hauk on the F-Droid
Unfortunately, GPS tracking technology can also be used for malicious purposes. In this case, spyware is installed on your phone without your knowledge. It will collect your phone’s GPS data and send it to someone who is tracking you.
Location Sharing Apps & Services Tracking Your Location
Your phone’s location is used to help apps but can also be shared so others can keep track of you. Google Maps location sharing and Apple’s Find My are the two main ways users can share locations between trusted users.
Google offers limited-duration and continuous sharing of location updates through its Maps service. If you have a Google account, you’re ready to share directly in the Maps app to other Google users or via a temporary web link for those outside the ecosystem. Google’s full support page provides great instructions.
Apple Find My
The People tab inside Apple’s Find My app is your destination for location sharing between iPhone users. MacRumors does a great job explaining the service in this video from YouTube.
Other Location-Sharing Services
There are several cross-platform alternatives for location sharing: Life360 and GeoZilla are designed for family safety.
Another option to check out is Hauk on the F-Droid app store which is a free and open-source software (FOSS), location-sharing app.
Messengers can be horribly insecure when sharing location. I have a list of 11 messaging apps that you’re likely using to send your location. I recommend using #7-11 only.
How Spyware Is Used To Track You
Spyware is a type of malicious software that can be installed on your smartphone without your knowledge.
Once installed, spyware can use the GPS receiver to track your location and send that information to a third party. This can include your current location, your location history, and even your daily movements.
To protect yourself from unwanted location tracking, it’s important to be aware of the apps and services that have access to your location data.
Only give permission to apps and services that you trust and use regularly. Keep your phone updated with the latest security patches and don’t install apps from untrusted sources. If you suspect that your phone has been infected with spyware, run a scan with a reputable mobile security app.
How to Tell Someone Checks Your Location
For Google Maps on Android, you’ll see two brief location notifications.
GuidingTech has a good post showing how to view your Android notification logs.
Android 11 surfaced an easier-accessed Notification History list. Pull down the notifications tray and tap History. All dismissed notifications are presented chronologically.
When Google’s Find My Device service is used, a brief notification is displayed and again can be easily seen in the notification log.
For Apple iPhones, the Find My service through iCloud functions similarly. There’s a brief notification icon in the status bar when the device’s location is checked.
You can read more about iOS location and privacy on Apple’s support site.
For the other location-sharing services, each discloses your location updates differently. Please note that the operating system should offer the best glimpse into telling when the service checks your phone’s location.
Location Data From Social Media
Location settings on social media accounts allow users to share their location information with others. This can include your current location, your home address, or even your place of work. This information is used to provide location-based services, such as nearby events or recommendations for friends.
However, our location data can also be included in our posts, and so anyone who views our posts can see our location and track our whereabouts.
Limit The Visibility of Your Location-data Online
Many social media platforms allow users to turn off location sharing altogether, or to only share their location with specific groups of friends. You can also adjust the privacy settings of your account to limit the visibility of your location data.
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Tracking
When you are looking for a WiFi network or a Bluetooth scanner, your phone sends out its unique MAC address.
These signals can be picked up by tracking devices located in a building or area. By measuring the signals from several tracking devices, it is possible to pinpoint the location of your device (and therefore your location) with high precision.
This technology is frequently used in public spaces like airports, hospitals, and universities to monitor the movement of people.
It’s important to note that both technologies can be used to track individuals without their knowledge or consent, and there are concerns about privacy and security when it comes to their use.
How To Prevent WiFi and Bluetooth Tracking
There are several ways to prevent WiFi and Bluetooth tracking:
- Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth when not in use: By disabling these features when you are not actively using them, you can prevent your device from broadcasting its MAC address and being tracked.
- Use a VPN: Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can mask your internet connection, making it harder for tracking devices to detect your MAC address.
- Make sure your phone supports MAC address randomization: MAC address randomization is a technique used to protect the privacy of users by regularly changing the MAC address of a device. This makes it harder for tracking devices to identify and track a specific device over time.
IP Address Tracking
An IP address (Internet Protocol address) is a unique numerical label assigned to every device connected to a computer network that uses the Internet Protocol for communication.
When a device connects to the internet, it is assigned an IP address by the Internet Service Provider (ISP) that allows it to communicate with other devices on the network. This IP address can be used to identify the device’s location, as well as the ISP that provided the connection.
IP addresses can be used to track a device’s location in several ways.
For example, IP geolocation services use databases of IP addresses and their associated locations to determine the physical location of a device.
Furthermore, IP addresses can also be used to track a device’s online activities. Websites and apps can log IP addresses when a device connects to them. This information can be used to track a device’s browsing history, as well as its search queries and online purchases. Some websites and apps can also use IP addresses to personalize content and targeted ads.
To protect your privacy, you can use a VPN service that will mask your IP address and encrypt your internet connection. Also, use a browser with built-in tracking protection that can block websites and apps from tracking you.
Can You Tell When Your Mobile Carrier Tracks Your Location?
There’s no direct way to see when your mobile carrier reviews their logs. Go ahead and assume you’re being tracked.
How To Find Your Lost Smartphone
Remote device location and administration is another use case for location data. Google’s Find My Device and Apple’s Find My iPhone (now combined with Find My Friends into “Find My”) are the out-of-the-box options for locating your lost or stolen device.
Find My Device provides
- Status on last seen date/time, network connectivity and battery level, phone identifier (IMEI), and location on a map
- Remote administration features, including
- high-volume ring
- display an on-screen message
- secure lock and sign out of the Google account
- remote erase/wipe the content on the device
Find My iPhone provides
- Date and time last connected to iCloud, location on a map, approximate battery level, and if the device is charging
- Remote ability to ring the phone, set the iOS device to lost mode, and remotely erase
The best privacy-respecting alternative for tracking a lost or stolen smartphone is Prey. The service offers free and paid tiers of service and can track mobile devices as well as laptops.
For all these lost/stolen phone services, you can remotely secure the device and post a message on-screen if you want to disclose the device has been tracked.
What To Do Now?
For all mobile phone users, remember that your approximate location is a technical requirement for providing cellular service and mobile data. Your carrier continuously logs your location and may be required to disclose this history through legal information requests. Private individuals will not have this location data.
Smartphone users can tell when someone or some service checks their location. You can find some tracking history by digging into your device’s apps or settings. Users may also have the ability to see this location list on a service’s website.
As users become more privacy-concerned, device manufacturers, app developers, and mobile service providers are introducing more transparency notifying users about how location data is obtained, used, and stored.
Remote location services and location sharing come with a privacy cost. You’re entrusting the companies you employ to secure your real-time data against theft and only disclose your location to third parties that have the legal authority to get it. Please use these services when and if the advantages outweigh the risks for you.
In this video (6m13s@2x), The Hated One goes over all the ways your smartphone is tracking your location.