The idea of a “tracking device” used to feel too sci-fi to be real.
Were we really supposed to believe there were tiny geotracking devices, hidden in someone’s clothes or possessions, that could tell you where they were at all times? It was like tracing calls, or “enhancing” photos: if it ever did happen, it was never anything like in the movies.
At least, that’s how it used to be…before tracking devices were available to everybody on the open market, and before all of us started willingly carrying them around in our pockets.
Creeped out? Even a little frightened? That’s only fair: geolocation tracking, aka geotracking, is a threat to everyone’s privacy.
But we don’t want to wallow in fear for long. Here at AllAnonymity, our mission is to give you the information you need to fight back against those who would invade your privacy.
In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about geolocation tracking, and how you can keep the bad guys from spying on your physical whereabouts.
What Is Geolocation Tracking (or Geotracking)?
Broadly, geotracking refers to any technology that can locate an object in something like real time.
This generally works by means of triangulation. If you know the direction of one point from two other points, you can figure out that point’s exact location. If I’m due-north of one specific cell tower and due-east of another, there’s only one place on Earth I could be.
Cell towers are a common source of geographic location information, since your phone bounces a signal off them in order to work. They tend to use three towers instead of two for more accurate calculations. WiFi access ports and GPS satellites can be used for triangulation as well.
Geolocation tracking isn’t always sinister. Using your phone’s maps app to find an address, or using a tracking number to see whether your package has shipped, are both technically geotracking, but they don’t directly threaten anyone’s privacy. Businesses might use geolocation data to monitor their supply chains or to find property if it gets stolen.
However, in this article, I’ll be concerned with the uses of geolocation tracking that skew decidedly creepwards — and how you can defeat them.
What Kind of Data Does Geotracking Reveal?
In 2018, The New York Times spent four months tracking a volunteer using just the location data she unknowingly shared with her cellphone apps. The report was chilling.
The subject’s location data had been harvested by her apps in near real time — about every 20 minutes. Not only could the reporters tell exactly where she’d gone every day, they could also deduce how long she’d spent there, giving them clues about what she was doing.
The ability of your cellphone to use location data is often treated as a good thing: Adjust your driving route in real time! Find the best Thai food in your neighborhood! Meet hot singles in your area!
As is so often the case, this rosy view of the future fails to account for the danger of one entity having that much power. The biggest danger is that the entity collecting the geolocation information will sell it to someone else — the secondary market for location data was worth $10.6 billion in 2019, and it’s only going to grow.
Who Is Tracking You and Why?
It’s almost impossible to know how many companies, advertisers and less-scrupulous interlopers have crossed your geolocation privacy boundaries without your consent. Even worse, geotracking is legal (though some lawmakers are looking to change that).
Something else that’s surprisingly legal: buying tracking devices. Amazon has pages and pages of GPS trackers for sale. There’s nothing stopping anybody from buying one and sticking it on someone’s backpack, purse or vehicle without their consent.
So it’s not just evil corporations that might be pawing through your geolocation data. It could be your parents, your spouse, your ex, your stalker or even the police. In this section, we’ll run through everybody who might use location data to keep tabs on you — and how they do it.
1. Businesses: Data Is the New Oil
Businesses are aware that the average person hates to be advertised to. Sure, we love to consume products, but we want to come to them on our own terms.
That’s why corporate America is so hungry for geolocation data. If they know where a potential consumer is and how that place fits into the person’s daily routine, they can target ads to that person at the times when they’ll be most receptive. Cold drinks after the gym. Weight loss products after a dinner out. Self-help books after a visit to the therapist.
You can see how quickly this becomes a violation of your privacy — and it’s not just one violation. Businesses wage a constant, relentless assault on our right to a private life…and most of the time, it’s because we let them do it. Companies don’t need to place a tracking device on you. They get their data through apps and devices that you willingly use.
Let’s run through an example. Suppose you use Google Maps to find your way to that new bar you’ve been meaning to try. When you get home, you put your phone on the bedside table and go to sleep.
When Google sees that you’ve left your phone dormant in a certain location for several hours at night, they deduce that this means you live there. Knowing where you live lets them guess at your income, spoken language, family status, education level and more.
If your phone follows you to work every day, they know what your job is, too. With those two data points, it’s like they can triangulate a person. Next time you Google something, you see some scarily personalized ads — the result of a geolocation marketer making an educated guess. It only takes one night.
How did things get this bad?
People are watching much less broadcast TV than they used to. That deprives marketers of one of their biggest advertising channels. However, since more people than ever are carrying GPS devices in their pockets, geolocation advertising has stepped up to fill the void.
It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. Unfortunately, you’re the business.
2. Spouses: Can I Track My Wife’s Phone Without Her Knowing?
A single Google search for “spouse phone tracking” reveals a terrifying range of options for spying on the person you vowed to trust ’til death you did part.
Apps such as Spyic and Spyine can be installed on another person’s phone. They run in the background, consuming as little data and battery as possible so their presence stays concealed. If your target’s phone is connected to a cloud service (as most iOS phones are to iCloud), you can install a spy app on it without even touching their phone.
All you have to do is steal their cloud login credentials — which, frankly, should be the first sign that what you’re doing is wrong.
Phone tracking apps like Spyic are rich in features. Once installed on a target’s phone, a user can log into a web-based dashboard. From there, they can spy on the phone’s location data, see the address data of places they visit, check them out through Google Street View and view a log of the subject’s past movements.
Oh, and plenty of spy apps are capable of reading your text messages, call logs and browser history.
You’ll find these apps reviewed on dozens of websites. Many of them state, completely without irony, that you don’t have to worry about the app company stealing the data you are currently stealing from your spouse’s phone. Apparently, Spyic alone has over a million users, which is the sort of thing that makes you want to burn down the internet for the insurance money.
We’re not a relationship advice website, but come on. No matter how desperate things feel, invading your SO’s privacy isn’t the solution.
3. Parents: Tracking Apps for Kids
Do you want to ensure your children will never call you again the second they turn 18 and move out? There’s an app for that!
Apps such as Life360, mSpy and MamaBear can track your kids’ location data at all times and spy on their messages, guaranteeing years of icily silent family dinners and decades of ignored birthdays.
These apps work similarly to the ones that track spouses, with one key difference: parents can legally force their kids to download the spying app onto their own phones.
If you’re considering using one of these apps to track your child…don’t. For two reasons.
First, whatever you’re worried about — sexting, cyberbullying, unsafe driving — the solution is not technology. It’s a trusting relationship with your child. Yes, we’re aware that’s more difficult, but you’re the one who signed up for parenting.
Second, teens know more about technology than you do. They will figure out how to beat the app, and they’ll compare notes. The most likely thing they’ll do is start leaving their phone at home anytime they go anywhere, which is the exact opposite of the behavior you want to encourage.
4. Stalkers: Every Breath You Take
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, about three-quarters of stalking victims know their stalkers. Two-thirds of female stalking victims reported that their stalker was a partner or ex-partner.
Anybody can place a GPS tracker on someone’s car. But if a stalker is using one of the newfangled tracking apps, it helps if they used to be close to their intended victim. The modern stalker can secretly download an app on their partner’s phone and still be able to find her exact location data months after they break up.
Yet another chilling thing about all this: these stalker apps find phones using GPS and cell tower triangulation, exactly the same way advertisers do.
5. Law Enforcement: Know Your Rights
When Google, Apple, Facebook and other tech giants collect data on you through their products, they don’t just sell it to other businesses. The U.S. government is also making bids.
Vice recently reported on a company called X-Mode that acts as a broker for geolocation data. X-Mode bought user location data from seemingly trustworthy apps — such as a carpenter’s level, a storm tracker, and an app that tells Muslims how to face Mecca at prayer time. X-Mode then sold that data to ICE and the U.S. Military.
If you’re wondering if this is constitutional, well, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled at least once that gathering GPS data without a warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And these apps gather location data indiscriminately — almost nobody they track has been charged with a crime, and you can forget about search warrants. But there are still a lot of edge cases for which there’s no precedent.
A Note About the GPS Act
In 2017, lawmakers introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act), which would make it illegal for private businesses to share geotracking information without the subject’s consent. Law enforcement and the government would have to show probable cause, similar to any other search warrant.
It isn’t perfect — for example, it explicitly exempts minors from protection. But it’s a good start.
The GPS Act is currently stuck in the Judiciary Committee. If you care about privacy in the digital age, consider contacting your U.S. senators and representatives and telling them you feel strongly about taking it up.
How to Keep Your Location Data Safe
Here are some quick steps you can take right now to stop your location data being tracked without your consent.
Protect Against Business and Advertising Surveillance
1. Turn off location tracking
On an iPhone, open your Settings panel, then go to Privacy > Location Services. You can turn off location services for all apps, or let a few (like your maps app) learn your location data only while you’re using them. If you choose to do this, make sure you close the app fully and don’t let it run in the background.
The latest Android versions forbid all apps from accessing location data by default. When you open an app that needs your location, such as Google Maps, the OS will ask to grant that app permission to track your location while it’s on.
On an Android phone, go to Settings > Biometrics and Security > App Permissions > Location to check that location data is still turned off for all apps, or set to “while using” at most.
2. Hide your phone ID from advertisers
Your phone is assigned an ID number that advertisers use to distinguish your activity. You can turn this off from within your phone’s settings.
On an iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy, and scroll down to Advertising. Click on it, then turn on “limit ad tracking” to hide your mobile identity from advertisers.
On Android, go to Settings > Google > Ads > Opt out of Ads Personalization to stop getting creepy targeted ads.
3. Disable tracking in your Google account
Even with the above settings turned off, Google tracks both Android and iPhone users from the web end. If your phone is synced with your desktop browser in any way, Google will sneak in through the back door.
To stop this, sign in to your Google account, then go to Personal Info & Privacy > Manage Your Activity Controls.
Scroll down to Location Activity and switch it off. If there’s any history of location data tracking in your account, delete it.
4. Browse anonymously on your phone
All the tips for browsing anonymously with a desktop browser also apply to using the internet on mobile. That means the most important thing you can do to keep your phone from being tracked is to use a VPN.
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a way to mask a device’s identity while it’s connected to the world wide web. It runs in the background, constantly laundering your activity through anonymous servers so it can never be traced back to you.
Using a VPN is a vital step, because every other step on this list requires you to trust that companies who engage in geolocation tracking are telling you the truth. Don’t let Google be the only thing protecting your rights from Google.
Protect Against Intimate Partner Surveillance
1. Defend your phone
If you have any reason to believe your partner might start spying on you, never, ever let them borrow your phone. Don’t leave it alone anywhere they might find it, and change your access code.
Turn off the option to unlock your phone with a thumbprint ID — abusers can wait until you’re asleep, then use your thumb to open your phone. Somebody only needs 5 to 10 minutes alone with your phone to install whatever they want.
This might go without saying, but don’t give your partner your login credentials for any online accounts.
2. Know the signs
Most spying apps do their best to hide in the background, but there are still ways you can tell if you’ve been tagged with one.
Your phone itself will show signs of excessive background activity. Watch for a drop in battery life coupled with a rise in data usage; the app might even show up on the page that details your cellular data or battery use.
Other signs include the phone turning on by itself (because of activity in the background app), or you finding texts or emails you don’t remember sending. Listen for strange sounds during voice calls, especially a slight echo that suggests your voice is being recorded.
Often, the most telling signs come from your partner themselves. If they always seem to know where you are, or if they mention details you never told them, they might be spying.
3. Fight back with your own software
Yes, some awful people have built apps that can be used for stalking, harassment and abuse. But others have built apps you can use to protect yourself.
A VPN, as discussed above, can hide the location your device is broadcasting from, giving your stalker false information. Yes, if you live in Houston, they might realize you’re not spending every day in Vancouver, but after that, they can’t do anything but fume.
Apps such as iAmNotified will send you a notification every time a third party gains access to your phone. You can also use a location data spoofer like iMyFone AnyTo to give out believable false geotracking data.
Finally, the big names in antivirus software — McAfee, Kaspersky, Avira and others — offer mobile apps you can use to protect your phone from spyware. While keeping you safe from hackers, these apps can also prevent tracking activity from spying apps.
4. Keep records
If you suspect your phone is being tracked, start a log. Write down every time something suspicious happens, and add the date, time, location and as much evidence as possible. This can be given to crisis counselors, therapists, law enforcement and lawyers later on.
Final Thoughts on Geolocation Tracking & Privacy
Geolocation tracking is a technology, and like any technology, it can be used for good or ill. There are some legitimate reasons you might want your phone to know where you are: theft, emergency situations, being lost in a new city.
Yet when technology advances this quickly, it’s all too common for the bad guys to master it before the good guys do. That’s why knowing your rights and resources is so important.
Lately, we’re seeing signs that society is waking up to the danger of unregulated geotracking. In 2014, the U.S. made its first prosecution for distributing a spyware app. The legal precedent is there, but it’s going to take a lot of work from all of us to protect our Fourth Amendment rights.
Until then, stay alert and use a good VPN.