Security

Your smartphone can be tracked even if GPS, location services are turned off

According to Princeton researchers, the smartphone user wouldn't even know their phone was being tracked.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Smartphones' locations can still be tracked, even if all location services and GPS have been turned off. — Princeton, 2018
  • A security exploit uses a mix of phone and non-phone information sources to track a device's location, suggesting your location may not be as secure as you thought. — Princeton, 2018

Smartphones can still be tracked even if location services and GPS are turned off, according to Princeton University researchers.

The team—Arsalan Mosenia, Xiaoliang Dai, Prateek Mittal, and Niraj Jha—combined information from phone-based and non-phone sources to determine a device's location. The technique, called PinMe, shows it is possible to track a location even if the location services, GPS, and Wi-Fi are turned off.

Data used to track the device include the phone's time zone and information from its sensors, like air pressure, a Princeton press release said. When mixed with public information like maps, a device's location can be estimated without location services.

Since the sources that produce this data don't require user permission to operate and only collect a small amount of data, the method is "virtually undetectable," the release said.

SEE: Guidelines for building security policies (Tech Pro Research)

The findings, first published in September 2017 and later re-published in February 2018, suggest that despite a user's best efforts, their device's location, and most likely their location, can be tracked. For people who are trying to conceal their physical location, whether for personal or professional reasons, this could be a problem.

The sensor data used in this exploit is typically used for fitness and other movement-tracking apps, the researchers said. A way to switch off the sensors, like how you can turn off the GPS feature, may help avoid people being secretly tracked using the PinMe method, the researchers said.

While showing a potential security vulnerability in phones, the technology could give autonomous cars a security boost, the release noted. It could be an alternative to the standard GPS, which can be hacked, the researchers said.

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About Olivia Krauth

Olivia Krauth is a Multiplatform Reporter at TechRepublic.

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