It’s 2019 and everyone willingly carries a tracking device in their pockets. People can have their precise locations tracked in real time by law enforcement, the government, and advertising companies. It may sound like dystopian fiction, but it’s a reality.
How law enforcement can track your location
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, for instance, can be used by the bail bond industry to track people down, sometimes as accurate as a few hundred feet of their location. There’s not much oversight and rogue bounty hunters have access to the data. And this isn’t even a new problem.
Back in May 2018, The New York Times reported that this could happen. After the story broke, cellular carriers promised to do better. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile have all promised to stop selling this data to aggregators. And it appears that Verizon already stopped before the New York Times story.
How the government can track your location
It’s worth emphasizing that the government itself can still get access to your location data from your cellular company. They just need to get a warrant, then serve that to your cellular service provider.
If the technology exists, the government can get access to it with a warrant. It is quite a change from decades ago when the government had no way to track people’s real-time locations with a device that’s nearly always on their person.
The government doesn’t even need to get your cellular company involved. There are other tricks they can use to pinpoint your location with even better accuracy, such as by deploying “stingray devices” near you. These devices impersonate nearby cellular towers, forcing your phone to connect to them.
How advertisers can track your location
It’s not just your cellular carrier. Even if your cellular carrier perfectly safeguarded your data, it’d probably be very easy to track you thanks to the location access you’ve given to apps installed on your smartphone.
As innocuous as they may seem, Weather apps are particularly bad. You install a weather app and give it access to your location to show you the local weather. But that weather app may also be selling your data to the highest bidder. You likely didn’t pay money for your weather app, so the developers will need to make money somehow to keep the lights and servers on.
The city of Los Angeles is currently suing the Weather Channel, saying that its app intrusively mines and sells its users’ location data. Back in 2017, AccuWeather was caught sending its users’ location data to third-party advertisers — even after updating the app to remove that feature.
It’s best to avoid giving third-party apps access to your location. Stop using third-party weather apps and use your phone’s built-in weather app instead.
How your family can track your location
Your phone is capable of determining its location and sharing it in the background, even if the screen is off.
You don’t need to have an app open. 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 and friends. After you give someone access, they can open the app, and Apple’s servers will ping your phone, get your location, and show it to them. Of course, this is only with your permission, but it just shows how pervasive this technology is.