Can anyone really track my phone's precise location?

It's 2019, and everyone happily carries a tracking device in their pocket. People can see their precise locations tracked in real time by the government, ad agencies, and even rogue bounty hunters. It sounds like dystopian fiction, but it's a reality.


We like to debunk sensationalist stories, but this latest controversy is true. The precise location of your phone can be tracked in several different ways.

How Rogue Bounty Hunters Can Track Your Location

People walking the streets of Toronto at night in the rain

The latest controversy was sparked by Joseph Cox at Motherboard, who gave a bounty hunter $300 and a phone number. This bounty hunter managed to find the precise and current location of the cell phone associated with this phone number, up to a few hundred meters away.

Wait, slow down: how?

Well, apparently AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile all sell data — including geographic locations associated with customer phone numbers — to a variety of sketchy third-party companies. This data could be used by the surety industry to track people, for example. But there's not much surveillance, and rogue bounty hunters have access to the data. “People are reselling to the wrong people,” a surety industry source told Motherboard.

Here's the sad thing: it's not even a new problem! The New York Times reported that it could happen in May 2018. Mobile carriers promised to do better. For example, T-Mobile CEO John Legere promised not to “sell customer location data to sleazy intermediaries” in response to the June 2018 New York Times article.

The good news is that AT&T , Sprint , and T Mobile have all promised to stop selling this data to aggregators in response to the January 2019 Motherboard story. And it looks like Verizon has already stopped after the story. previous New York Times.

What can you do about it : I hope the carriers stop selling your data to shady middlemen this time, as promised.

How the government can track your location

bronze statue of justice

It's worth pointing out that the government itself can still access your location data from your cell phone company. They just need to get a warrant, and they can serve it on your cellular service provider. The cellular service provider can then provide your location to the government, even going so far as to provide real-time updates. (And yes, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the police needed a warrant to get this information!)

This all makes perfect sense. Of course, if the technology exists, the government can access it with a warrant. But that's quite a change from decades ago, when the government had no way of tracking people's real-time locations with a device that's almost always in their pockets.

The government doesn't even have to involve your cell phone company. They can use other tricks to pinpoint your location with even better accuracy, such as deploying stingray devices near you. These pretend to be nearby cell towers, forcing your phone to connect to them. (More US courts are ruling that police also need a warrant for this type of tracking.)

What can you do about it : Nothing unless you want to stop carrying a phone.

How advertisers can track your location

Lightning storm over the city in purple light

It's not just your mobile carrier. Even if your mobile operator protected your data perfectly, it would probably be very easy to track you thanks to the location access that you gave to the applications installed on your smartphone.

Weather apps are particularly bad. You install a weather app and give it access to your location. After all, it needs your location to show you the weather. All this is true and irreproachable.

But wait: this weather app also sells your data to the highest bidder. After all, you probably didn't pay any money for your weather app, so it must be making money somehow!

The City of Los Angeles is suing the Weather Channel , saying its app intrusively extracts and sells its users' location data. AccuWeather was also caught sending its users' location data to a third-party advertiser in 2017, even after the app updated to remove this feature, after it was first reported! It is a model for weather applications in particular. It is possible that people use this data to find the precise locations of weather app users.

Dark Sky promises it won't abuse your location data and we love Dark Sky. But Dark Sky can only afford to do this because it charges money for its weather app in advance.

Weather apps are just one example, and all sorts of apps that request access to your location are probably selling it in one way or another. Rogue bounty hunters will likely be able to start getting location data from these types of apps rather than cellular carriers in the future.

What you can do about it : Avoid granting third-party apps access to your location. As Motherboard recommends, stop using third-party weather apps and use your phone's built-in weather app. (Here's how to manage app permissions on your iPhone or Android phone.) Many weather apps also allow you to enter a postcode or city name for the cities you want to track, which is at least better than sharing your location data.

How your family can track your location

Your phone is able to determine its location and share it in the background, even if the screen is off. You don't need to open an app.

You can see this for yourself if you use a service like Apple's Find My Friends, which is included on iPhones. Find My Friends can be used to share your precise real-time locations with family members or friends. Once you give someone access, they can open the app and Apple's servers will ping your iPhone, get your location and show it to them. It's a handy way to see if your partner is still on their way home from work or to find your friends in a crowd.

Android phones have something similar in a Google app called Trusted Contacts, and of course there are plenty of third-party apps that help you share your real-time locations with people.

Of course, this is only with your permission, but it shows how ubiquitous this technology is. After all, it's the same technology you can use to remotely track your lost iPhone or Android phone in case you lose it. But it is accessible to any app that requests access to your location in the background.

What you can do about it : Be careful who you share your real-time location with.