Does Your Location Update When Your Phone Dies? “It’s Mostly Dead”

When your smartphone dies, there’s still a little power left, but the operating system has powered down. The device isn’t completely dead. But is your phone updating your location?

Smartphones with power levels below a programmed threshold will power down and no longer actively update location services. Some transmissions to cellular towers can occur while a phone is off. Location may be retrieved through the exploits of intelligence agencies.

In other words, when your smartphone dies, any location updates will stop, and your last reported position will become outdated and eventually will not be displayed on mapping or tracking services. There are some caveats to be aware of.

Black and white ai image of a man holding a smartphone, wondering if location updates when your phone dies

How Smartphone Location Services Works

The primary location services offered by smartphones are GPS and cellular triangulation, the combination of cell towers to detect the user’s approximate location.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beaconing can also augment location in some scenarios.

While background geopositioning algorithms are inexact, your smartphone sends these calculated positions to a location service like Google Maps or Apple Find My.

These frequent updates are strung into a location history and attached to the smartphone owner’s account.

Older location updates typically remain in a database even after a device is turned off or offline for a significant period of time. This data is considered “old” because it doesn’t reflect the device’s current location now that it’s lost power and shut down.

It’s important to understand that your smartphone (or even dumbphone) in a low-power or off state isn’t actually dead.

“There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead…Mostly dead is slightly alive.”

Meme from pricess bride showing miracle max saying "there's a difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. "

…and that means there’s a potential for tracking. Let me explain.

How Intelligence Agencies Can Track An “Off” Phone

Now that most smartphones no longer have removable batteries, some Trojan software can run while a smartphone is off.

As far back as 2004, intelligence agencies could implant malware or specialized chips on target phones that would continue to report location despite being switched off. It’s unclear if high-level agencies have remote execution or control techniques.

Additionally, some research points towards specific scenarios where a powered-down phone may be detected based on radio transmissions. This is a very edge case and requires proximity to the device.

Depending on your use case, you may want to ensure your device continues to update your location for as long as possible.

Smartphone displaying "low battery" with charging cable used to tie person's hands

How To Ensure Your Phone Keeps Updating Your Location

By now, it’s pretty clear we need a way to ensure that the mobile operating system remains online to actively update your location.

The following are some tips to save the remaining power on your smartphone, allowing it to update your location in the background:

  1. Keep your phone cool. Remove the case if possible.
  2. Lower the screen’s brightness or keep it off as much as possible.
  3. Turn off all vibrations.
  4. Delete apps you don’t use, knowing you can reinstall them later.
  5. Log out of apps you don’t want to remove to stop receiving push notifications.
  6. Try to ensure the device will have a cellular connection, e.g., avoid commercial buildings or sources of radio interference.
  7. Advanced: use an app firewall like TrackerControl or NetGuard to stop unnecessary data transmission from apps.

Power consumption is much slower on dumbphones. Since there’s no GPS, cellular tower triangulation is the primary way to estimate your location. To keep a feature phone pinging cell towers, here are some tips to save the most power on dumb phones.

  1. Keep the screen off as much as possible.
  2. Turn off all vibration settings.
  3. Keep the phone cool.
  4. Stay away from sources of cellular signal interference.

Of course, good charging practices and keeping chargers or spare batteries nearby will allow your phone to stay powered and updating your location.

Mike Chu

Mike is a web developer and content writer living as a digital nomad. With more than 20 years of devops experience, he brings his "programmer with people skills" approach to help explain technology to the average user. Check out his full author bio by clicking here.

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