Thinking Tech

Hackers can follow you via your cell phone

Hackers can follow you via your cell phone

Posting in Technology

A recent study finds that it's surprisingly easy for hackers to track your location when you receive calls to your cell phone.

brothers putting my retired cellphones to good use - _MG_0005

With limited cheap equipment hackers could easily locate where you and your cell phone are without you having any idea. At least that is the conclusion of a recent study out of the University of Minnesota (PDF.)

It all rests on the simple fact that the cell phone network has to track your phone within a certain wide range so it can prioritize resources to provide the best service possible. (Most of us are familiar with the fact that service providers must give up such location information when subpoenaed by law enforcement agencies.)

So when a call comes in to you, the broadcasting tower will send a signal to your phone and waits for you to respond. A hacker is able to intercept that signal before you even hear the call to answer it.

From the press release:

Using an inexpensive phone and open source software, the researchers were able to track the location of cell phone users without their knowledge on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network, the predominant worldwide network.

In a field test, the research group was able to track the location of a test subject within a 10-block area as the subject traveled across an area of Minneapolis at a walking pace. The researchers used readily available equipment and no direct help from the service provider.

The dangers are somewhat obvious of course. From thieves who want to track your time away from home to terrorists following the moves of a political figure. Right now the researchers are connecting with AT&T and Nokia to instruct them on ways they might be able to protect their customers.

[Photo sean dreilinger]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure