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Mobile phone tracking capabilities

All UK mobile phone operators now track the locations of cellphones, according to this BBC piece. The technology was built in order to provide mobile phone users with information about nearby services: dial a number and ask for the nearest Mexican restaurant, for example. But providers are beginning to offer reverse location lookups, so others can track the location of a particular phone, or send text messages to people in a particular area.

“All the big four operators now offer a commercial service so you can send them a telephone number and they will tell you where it is,” said Colin Bates, chief technology officer at location services company Mobile Commerce.


But location-based services are going to be much more common, now that locations can be requested for a few pence a time and firms such as Mobile Commerce and Verilocation are springing up to funnel location requests to the various networks.

The location system works best in urban areas covered by lots of base stations that have overlapping coverage. This lets operators give a location fix accurate to about 200 metres.

Providers are quick to point out that they won’t release information about a phone’s location without permission from the owner. Except if you’re a law enforcement officer, of course, or a corrupt employee, or a skilled social engineer, or the rules change..

Soon Verilocation plans to offer a service for families that lets worried parents find out where their offspring are. The service will cost a fixed amount every month and let family members check locations a few times per month.

Mr Overton said Data Protection legislation means that tracking cannot be done without consent of a handset owner.

– BBC, Being tracked down by your mobile.

Verilocation’s web page has some more information on how the process works, but there are no technical details.

The opportunity for abuse of such a capability is particularly alarming in a government-controlled monopoly such as telecommunications. The lengths to which network operators will go to please their state protectors was illustrated recently when it was revealed that UK government departments make 1 million requests for phone records each year. Service providers hand over as many as 100 million call records each year in order to maintain a good relationship with police and other investigatory agencies.

Cross-posted from Vigilant TV

4 comments to Mobile phone tracking capabilities

  • Mobile phones have always doubled as tracking devices. They have to, as the network has to be able to find the phone in order that it can accept incoming calls. With respect to the accuracy of this, the networks have also shared information with one another for more than ten years in order to pinpoint the location of stolen phones more accurately than can be done using a single network. (I was told in about 1993 that they could do it to within a few hundred yards). From time to time they have shared this information with the police. What is new is nothing technical, but this being offered as a commercial service

  • Doug Collins

    Does anyone know if the location of the phone can be determined while it is turned off?

  • I’m not a phone expert but one would presume not; the when the phone is off, it is not transmitting a signal.

    There is however the possibility that the phone might have an internal battery function that keeps the clock that nearly all phones have going.

    So it is certainly possible that a phone can be designed to give off it’s tracking signal even while switched off- and I would not be surprised if this feature comes in, and the idea is defended as a way of tracking stolen phones.

  • Hi,
    If a mobile phone is turned off or out of range the last know position is reported when a location request is made.