Phones Allow Surreptitious Geo-Tracking - GPS World

Phones Allow Surreptitious Geo-Tracking

July 23, 2015  - By
Janice Partyka

Janice Partyka

Not everyone wants to be located. Consumers think they have the ability to turn off the tracking ability of their phones. But can they? More about that later. In other news, there are good reasons why Nokia’s HERE mapping is still on the selling block. And blind people are using a no-tech version of a widely used location positioning method that doesn’t need canes.

The controls that phone makers have devised to enable consumers to opt out of being located have a big hole. Android-based phones are giving app makers free access to phone data that can be used to surreptitiously geolocate devices. The data comes from an unlikely source: power consumption, and no consent is needed.

The technique, called PowerSpy, was developed by researchers at Stanford and Rafael, Israel’s defense research group, and gathers a phone’s power usage history. Simplistically, the location of the phone is tracked by using the phone’s battery consumption to determine the distance of a phone to a cell tower. The further the distance, or the greater the obstacles blocking the tower, the more power is consumed by the battery. The researchers say they can take into account phone usage battery drain and filter out the noise created by focusing on long-term trends.

At its current level of development, the PowerSpy method requires the snoop to have driven a route (war driving) to identify its power consumption pattern. With tests conducted in San Francisco, the method worked with 90 percent accuracy to identify a correct route from seven choices. The team is working on using the data to detect unknown routes that have not been previewed.

How would the hypothetical stalker, crook or unethical mobile advertiser get access to this data? They would entice a person to download an app. The smoke screen app might be a game or a productivity app that is quietly slurping up the power consumption data.

Here Today, Not Gone Tomorrow? Wouldn’t you think that Nokia would by now have clinched a deal to sell the mapping division? Given its mapping debacle, Apple was on the top of everyone’s list as a buyer, but apparently the company didn’t even participate in the bidding, and instead is committed to further development of its self-built mapping database. Contenders — Facebook, Baidu, Tencent and Uber — seem to have dropped out of the competition. Left is a consortium of German automakers — BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen — who feel that they should get a better deal with no other buyers in sight. It is a double-edged sword, as they also worry that if the highly accurate maps are acquired by tech firms, the car makers will lose a competitive advantage in the fight for supremacy of the automated vehicle. High-precision mapping is critical to the success of the auto OEMs.

Who Will Win Connected Vehicles? Follow the Money. Investors who want a piece of the connected vehicle action are placing bets on the tech companies, not the auto OEMs. Many blue chip and small companies are seeing healthy gains in price. Sensor chip makers, car infotainment and telecom companies are some of the winners. With the surge of connectivity required in the Internet of Things, networking technology will also do well.

E911 Innovations. While regulations are in place for eventually requiring technology to automatically identify the location of indoor E911 calls, dispatchers don’t yet have that capability. Callers can be inside a large complex, like a dormitory or hotel, and if they are unable to speak or identify their location, response is hampered. Smart911 from Rave Mobile Safety is sending dispatchers floor plans of buildings to help in rescue efforts. The maps are automatically sent with the 911 call and have already been credited with quicker responses.

Quick Business News. Uber acquired Microsoft’s geo-imagery team and assets, known at BIT (Bing Imagery Technologies), which is based in Boulder. Microsoft didn’t need this technology as it had already outsourced Bing Maps technology to Nokia HERE. Telecommunication Systems (TCS) purchased location-based technology and intellectual property from Loctronix. The purchase will further TCS in developing indoor-location technologies. Denmark has become the first country to use real-time traffic data across a national network. Denmark will use GPS probe data managed by INRIX for congestion management. The Internet of Things relies on multitudes of sensors and a new start-up, Sense360, has built a platform to manage that data.

No-Tech Location Technology. Daniel Kish was a particularly helpful kid who made deliveries for his mom to homes outside of his neighborhood. What is unusual is that Kish is blind and uses echolocation to “see” the space around him. He clicks his tongue to ascertain the unique echoes of his surroundings, starting by identifying areas of high or low density, such as tall buildings, squat houses or open space. And in a version of drive testing, blind users like Kish first walk a neighborhood with a sighted guide and remember the signature echoes. Whether it is solely by ear or with a big computer algorithm like PowerSpy, pattern mapping can be effective.


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About the Author: Janice Partyka

Janice Partyka is principal of JGP Services,, a consulting practice that helps companies with marketing strategy, including investigating new markets, ensuring product roadmaps match market needs, and creating marketing campaigns. Janice develops websites, social media, public relations and overall marketing communication. She also works as an expert witness for the mobile industry and conducts prior art searches for patent cases. Janice has served in leadership capacities in the wireless industry, leading marketing, business development, media and government relations, including serving as vice president of external affairs for TechnoCom Corporation. She briefed the Obama transition team on broadband issues. Janice was a twice-elected member of the board of directors of the E9-1-1 Institute, which supports the work of the U.S. Congressional E9-1-1 Caucus to ensure implementation of wireless E9-1-1, and she was telecom liaison to the Intelligent Transportation Society's World Congress. Janice is a frequent speaker at mobile and location industry events. Her webinars on mobile applications and technologies draw audiences from more than 40 countries. Janice Partyka is also the founder of, a web service that helps college students find the right major that will lead to a satisfying career. Contact: Janice Partyka at, Free subscriptions to Wireless LBS Insider are available at