How Do Phones Get Tracked With GPS Turned Off

The most rumored hypothesis of being tracked via the mobile phone you own might be a correct one as well. At Northeastern University, a team of researchers claims to have found a way to track your phone even if your GPS is turned off. “People don't really realize that their mobile phone, with access to all these sensors, is, in some sense, potentially like the best spying device you can imagine," one of the researchers said.

Turning your location off will not be enough now to stay safe from possibly getting spied on.

“Not a lot of people are aware of this problem. Mainly because when we think about location, we associate it with the GPS on the phone,” said Sashank Narain, a Ph.D. researcher.

In an experiment, the people who have their GPS turned off were tracked down while driving around Waltham, London, Massachusetts, and Boston by Narain and his team, including, Triet Vo-Huu, Ken Block and Amirali Sanatinia.

“The goal of our project is to make people aware that vulnerabilities such as these exist, and they should be taken care of,” Narain said further.

Guevara Noubir, a Northeastern University professor and the director of the University’s Cybersecurity and Information Assurance Graduate Program, who was also a part of this research said “There’s a whole area, what's called the side channel attacks, where you use side information to infer something that can have an impact on security.”

With the help of Google’s operating system for Android phones, the researchers were able to track the phones by using the sensors which did not have the function of tracking the location initially. Among those sensors were an accelerometer, a magnetometer (sort of a digital compass), also, a gyroscope, a rotation tracking tool. These sensors work as the screen changes from horizontal to vertical when you move your phone.

For being tracked the subjects were told to download a simple utility app, which, in reality, was an app to gather the sensor data.

“You need to have an app installed on the phone, but once that is done, all the other processes… [are] automatic,” Narain said.

For now, these techniques are limited to work best in certain cities only.

“In a place like Boston, which has a lot of unique turns and very curvy roads, you can get an accuracy of up to 50 percent of guessing the user's location in the top five search results. In case of a place like Manhattan, which is mostly grid-like, it's much more difficult,” said Narain.

The more the data collected, the better the ability to track these devices gets.

“If you were to travel the same path every day, we have an extremely high probability to guess where you live, where you work and what trajectories you took. Extremely high meaning that on repeated paths more than 90 percent,” Noubir said.

The results were astonishing and it is believed that the tracking ability and accuracy could improve over time.

“We were not honestly expecting such high accuracies,” he said. “As the sophistication of these sensors on smartphones improve, as they become more and more accurate, this may become a primary means of invading users' privacy.”

Even though the target of research was Andriod phones, Noubir claims that this hack “applies also to iPhones, because they have similar kind of permissions for the sensors and so on.”

While going on the record regarding the subject, a spokesperson from Google said the Android P, its new operating system “restricts access to sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes. Smartphone sensors do not directly provide user location data, and this research highlights just how difficult it would be to use these sensors for location tracking”. Some more details regarding Android P OS changes can be read here.

Apple inc. did not make any comments about the matter though.

So to make sure that you are not tracked or that your phone did not get hacked without your knowledge, you must only download apps via Google and Apple stores only and keep your OS up to date.

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