From the category archives:

Cell Phone Tracking

Researchers from the University of Minnesota presented a paper earlier this month detailing how a person in the know could use cheap hardware and open source software to determine what cell phone tower a GSM based cell phone is using. This could conceivably give criminals, governments, and businesses access to rough position without having to ask cell networks for permission.

The researchers suspect that approximately 80% of the 5 billion cell phones in the world suffer from this vulnerability, leaving around 1 billion devices that are not subject to being tracked in this way. It is also important to note that the position data is extremely coarse and at best can locate a phone within a square km area. This is not GPS tracking.

The paper, Location Leaks on the GSM Air Interface (.pdf), was presented at the 19th Annual Network & Distributed System Security Symposium and was the work of Denis Foo Kune, John Koelndorfer, Nicholas Hopper, and Yongdae Kim.

Here is what some of the typical news media coverage on this topic looks like, whether it is in print or broadcast news:

The news casters are obviously trying to make people watch the program and make it memorable, but in so doing they put the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABLE.

For starters, not all people can be tracked using the method outlined in this paper. The number of people susceptible to this security flaw is somewhere in the neighborhood of 136 million in the US, which represents the number of cell phone users subtracted by the number of smartphone users. There are about 234 million cell phone users age 13 and up in the US, according to reports from comscore. About 98 million are smartphone users. There are some smartphones at risk, especially those on the T-Mobile and AT&T network according to the paper.

Another important thing to understand is that this only affects phones that use the GSM network technology (i.e. old phones). GSM, or 2G technology, is older networking infrastructure that is on its way out in the US but is still used extensively by the vast majority of the world. The importance of the researchers findings are certainly more important for the rest of world than it is for those in the US.

Also, phones on certain cell phone carriers, like AT&T, are susceptible – smartphone or not. AT&T, which allows users to talk and surf the internet at the same time, has to use two different technologies to accomplish this. One of these technologies is GSM. This makes pretty much all their phones susceptible to being tracked using the method outlined in this paper.

Hackers also must have your cell phone number, a working map of the cell phone towers in your area, sophisticated computer skills, and a land line in order to pull off this hack. Chances are that there are very few people with all those components who are also willing to track you down.

The paper does end by suggesting some methods carriers could implement to secure GSM networks from this security flaw.

Sources: Ars Technica, Gizmag, University of Minnesota, Fox 9 Twin Cities, TechCrunch

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USF Patents Reverse 911 System, Crowdsourced Crime Fighting For Cell Phones With GPS

January 30, 2012

Researchers and engineers from the University of South Florida have been awarded a patent that could see the public better informed about crime and disasters than ever before.  The patent (US8045954) covers a system that would enable governments to crowdsource crime fighting as well as laser target disaster announcements to mobile phones using a GPS [...]

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Stolen Cell Phone Found By Using GPS Tracking App

January 12, 2012

A man was arrested and charged with possession of stolen property after the owner of a cell phone tracked it to a residence in Sacramento, California. According to reports from KCRA, a news station in Sacramento, the unidentified victim reported his cell phone stolen through an online reporting form but then decided to take matters [...]

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Sad Mother Pleads For Stolen Cell Phone Back, Gives Police GPS Info

January 11, 2012

Cell phones can sometimes house our most precious memories. One Florida mother is living with the reality of having these memories stolen from her and her terminally ill 3-year-old daughter. Melissa Vazquez lost her phone while out on the town with some family members on Sunday, January 8th. She was at the Passion Nightclub at [...]

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GPS Navigation App Waze Boosts Public Presences With ABC Local Affiliate Deal

December 8, 2011

Waze announced today that they made a brilliant marketing move by partnering with ABC affiliated news networks to provide real-time traffic updates for traffic reporters around the country.  The navigation app, which can be used on iPhone, Android, Windows, Nokia, and Blackberry phones, already has 9 million users and is sure to grab some more [...]

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OK Go Uses GPS Tracking While Filming Music Video

January 6, 2011

OK Go has created a new video where they utilize a GPS tracking app to spell out their name in the city of Los Angelos. Here’s the video: The app is Range Rover Pulse of the City and is available on iTunes.

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Religious Cell Phone App Leverages GPS Tracking To Reach The Faithful

November 4, 2010

It is important to remember that people are not only using GPS in cell phones to make money or to keep people safe. They are also using it to improve their religious devotion. The following is story coming out of an Asian Roman Catholic news agency: As the smartphone phenomenon gathers pace, religious groups in [...]

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29 Lost Hikers Saved With Cell Phones and GPS Tracking

October 22, 2010

Thank God for cell phones. That is at least what 29 hikers from a Chinese Bible Church from Boston are thinking after they got lost in New Hampshire’s Blue Trail at Mount Belknap. What is interesting about this story is not that the cell phones were instrumental in the rescue efforts – that is old [...]

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