First, you need to know that you can’t make your phone location impossible to track and still be able to use it. But you can make your phone nearly impossible to track. And you can block your phone from being tracked, and block tracking apps. Bear in mind that anyone can download an iPhone tracking app, free or otherwise, same for Android tracking apps. If you listened to a recent interview with Dina Temple-Raston, you’re probably looking for that phone privacy handbook she mentioned; read on.
We’ve been writing about, and warning about, the dangers and prevalence of mobile phone tracking for more than a decade. However a majority of mobile phone users haven’t really taken heed, and can you blame them? With the marketing that Apple, Google, Samsung, and other phone makers do pushing the latest and greatest upgrade, people feel like they have to have them, damn the data privacy torpedos, full access ahead.
However with what else is going on in the U.S. and the world (for example the revelation that a data broker was selling location tracking data of people who were visiting family planning clinics that provide abortions), people are finally waking up to the fact that the little computer in their pocket is sending out a homing beacon that anyone can home in on and use, for just about any purpose.
As Privacy Pros points out, “Your phone is being tracked by dozens of companies and agencies and it is all entirely legal because you gave them permission to take this data from you when you downloaded their app and implicitly (or explicitly) agreed to their terms of service.”
As far back as 2009 we raised the alarm about your cell phone transmitting your location. Since then we have reported on the NSA’s “Co-Traveler” program, through which the NSA was able to track the movements (and thus the location) of a majority of mobile phones on the planet, creating a relationship-map between every cell phone with every other cell phone; and on the Stingray IMSI cell tower emulator which tricks your phone into connecting to it and giving up your phone’s data by mimicking a cell tower, and of which, at the time, the Justice Department said, and we quote, “If a device is not capturing the contents of a particular dialogue call, the device does not require a warrant, but only a court order under the Pen Register Statute showing the material obtained is relevant to an ongoing investigation.” In 2018 the the U.S. Supreme Court cell phone location privacy decision in Carpenter v. U.S. did rein that in a bit with respect to law enforcement, so now law enforcement agencies need a warrant to get the cell site location information (or CSLI for short) from your mobile carrier. But private citizens do not!
That’s right, private citizens can download any number of location tracking apps, some are even free. And they aren’t all being used for malicious purposes. For example, as the number of children carrying mobile smart phones continues to soar, parents are putting tracking apps on their children’s cell phones. But some are installed maliciously (often in situations which lead to domestic violence). And, of course, hackers who want to hack into your mobile phone to get at your banking and other information are everywhere.
And this is why we are, as we speak, putting together the Phone Privacy Handbook. Sign up to be notified when it’s available, and in the meantime we outline below the major things that you can do to make your phone much more difficult to track.
How to Make Your Phone Impossible to Track
Don’t Rely on Turning Off Your Phone!
As the NSA point out, “Turning off the device may not be sufficient if a device has been compromised.” (See PDF of full NSA “Limiting Location Data Exposure” at the end of this article.)
Turn Location Sharing Off
How do you think they do that?? That’s right, Apple and Google have tons of location data about you. Will they sell it? It depends, what did you agree to? And even if they don’t sell it, do your really trust Apple and Google to keep that data so secure that no hacker will ever be able to get to it as long as you live? Repeat after us: No data is ever so secure that nobody will ever be able to hack into it.
Don’t share location tracking with family and friends, either, it’s a hackable vector; lots of people find themselves being tracked (think domestic violence situations) when someone is able to grab the phone for just a minute, and turn on location sharing for themselves.
In fact, if you have an iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and turn off all location services.
For an Android, go to Settings > Personal > Location access, and turn it off.
Now, before we receive howls of indignation, we are talking about how to make your phone difficult to track. Do you know how easy it would be for someone to hack into your account to use “Find my iPhone”, for example, if they really wanted to track you? Yeah.
On the other hand, if we were talking about data protection, then, somewhat counter-intuitively, we would be telling you to keep your “Find my” option turned on, because if you lose your phone you can nearly instantly wipe all of the data off it.
Do you see the problem? Want to protect your personal data? Keep “Find my” on. Want to protect your personal safety by not being tracked? Turn “Find my” off.
Turn Off Location Services in All Apps
Yes, you have already turned off Location Services generally, but it’s still a very good idea to go into each and every app and turn off location sharing. You may be amazed at the number and variety of apps that have access to your location data, and that way if you turn Location Services back on generally, the apps won’t automatically have access to your location data.
Turn Off Your Phone’s Radio, Wifi, and Bluetooth
In case you aren’t familiar with the terminology, your phone’s radio is the way that your phone communicates with cell phone towers. It’s what your phone uses to communicate with the outside world when it isn’t using wifi. This is because all these sorts of communications occur on radio frequencies; cell phones communicate on one range of frequencies, FM radios on another, AM radios on another, CB on another, air traffic controllers on yet another, and so on.
Using your phone’s “airplane mode” should turn off your phone’s radio, wifi, and bluetooth all at once.
Turn Off Your Phone’s GPS
Actually, turning off all Location Services turns off your GPS. But we put this in here because lots of people don’t even realize that their phone is communicating with the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Turn Off Your Phone and Remove Your SIM Card
If you really need to be sure that you aren’t tracked to a particular location, as we note above from the NSA document, turning off your cell phone isn’t necessarily enough. After you turn off your phone, remove the SIM card, and don’t reinstall it until you are well away from whatever location you are concerned about disclosing.
Don’t Want to Deal with All of the Above? Get a Faraday Bag
As OffGrid.co explains in 5 reasons you need a Faraday bag, Faraday bags “shield devices from outside signals to prevent data from being altered, deleted, or added to a device.” They also keep whatever is in the bag from sharing data, location, signal, or anything else with the outside world. This cell phone Faraday bag on Amazon is highly rated and reasonable priced.