How Accurate Is Find My Phone

Lewis Tse Pui Lung/

It’s the twelvemonth 2019, and everyone willingly carries a tracking device in their pockets. People can have their precise locations tracked in real time by the authorities, advertizing companies, and even rogue bounty hunters. Information technology sounds like dystopian fiction—but it’due south a reality.

We like debunking sensationalist stories, but this latest controversy is true. Your phone’south precise location tin exist tracked in several different ways.

How Rogue Bounty Hunters Tin can Rail Your Location

People walking Toronto streets at night in the rain

The latest controversy was touched off past Joseph Cox over at Motherboard, who gave a bounty hunter $300 and a phone number. That bounty hunter managed to detect the precise, current location of the cellular phone associated with that telephone number, downwards to a few hundred meters.

Wait, slow downward: How?

Well, apparently AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile all sell data—including geographic locations associated with customer phone numbers—to a variety of sketchy 3rd-party companies. This data might be used by the bail bail manufacture to track people down, for example. Only there’due south not much oversight, and rogue bounty hunters have access to the data. “People are reselling to the wrong people,” a source in the bail manufacture told Motherboard.

Here’s the sad thing: This isn’t fifty-fifty a new problem! The New York Times reported that this could happen back in May 2018. Cellular carriers promised to exercise better. For case, T-Mobile CEO John Legere promised to not “sell customer location data to shady middleman” in response to the New York Times Story back in June 2018

The skillful news is that AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile have all promised to finish selling this data to aggregators in response to Motherboard’s Jan 2019 story. And it seems like Verizon already stopped after the before New York Times story.

What Y’all Tin can Do Nearly Information technology: Hope carriers stop selling your data to shady intermediaries this fourth dimension, equally promised.

How the Regime Tin can Track Your Location

Bronze statue of justice
Michal Kalasek/

It’s worth emphasizing that the government itself can still get access to your location data from your cellular company. They just need to get a warrant, and they tin can serve that to your cellular service provider. The cellular provider can then provide your location to the government, even going so far as to provide real-time updates. (And yes, the US Supreme Court has ruled that police need a warrant to get this information!)

That all makes perfect sense. Of course, if the technology exists, the government tin can get access to it with a warrant. Just it is quite a change from decades ago when the government had no way to track people’south real-fourth dimension locations with a device that’s most e’er in their pockets.

The government doesn’t even need to go your cellular company involved. There are other tricks they can use to pinpoint your location with fifty-fifty ameliorate accuracy, such every bit past deploying stingray devices near yous. These impersonate nearby cellular towers, forcing your phone to connect to them. (More The states courts are ruling that constabulary need a warrant for this type of tracking, as well.)

What You Can Practice Well-nigh It: Nix unless yous want to stop conveying a phone.

How Advertisers Can Track Your Location

Lightning storm over city in purple light
Vasin Lee/

It’southward non just your cellular carrier. Fifty-fifty if your cellular carrier perfectly safeguarded your data, it’d probably be very piece of cake to track yous thanks to the location access yous’ve given to apps installed on your smartphone.

Atmospheric condition apps are particularly bad. You install a weather app and give information technology access to your location—afterward all, it needs your location to show you the weather. That’southward all true and to a higher place board.

But, hold on: That weather app is likewise selling your data to the highest bidder. After all, you probably didn’t pay money for your weather app, so it has to make money somehow!

The city of Los Angeles is suing the Conditions Aqueduct, saying that its app intrusively mines and sells its users’ location data. AccuWeather was caught sending its users’ location data to a third-party advertiser back in 2017, also—even after updating the app to remove that feature, after it was first reported! This is a pattern for conditions apps in item. Information technology’south possible people could use this data to observe weather app users’ precise locations.

Dark Heaven promises it won’t corruption your location data and we similar Night Sky. But Dark Sky can only afford to do that considering it charges money for its weather condition app up-front.

Weather apps are simply one example, and all kinds of apps that asking access to your location probably sell it in some fashion. Rogue bounty hunters tin can probably outset getting location information from these kinds of apps rather than from cellular carriers in the time to come.

What Yous Tin Do Nigh It: Avert giving third-party apps access to your location. Equally Motherboard recommends, stop using 3rd-party weather condition apps and use your phone’due south born weather app. (Here’s how to manage app permissions on your iPhone or Android telephone.) Many weather apps also let yous enter a Zip code or city name for the cities you want to rail, which is at to the lowest degree better than sharing your location data.

How Your Family Tin can Rail Your Location


Your phone is capable of determining its location and sharing it in the background, even if the screen is off. You don’t need to take an app open.

Y’all tin can see this yourself if you use a service similar Apple’s Find My Friends, which is included on iPhones. Find My Friends can be used to share your precise real-time locations with family members or friends. After you give someone admission, they can open the app, and Apple tree’s servers volition ping your iPhone, get your location, and prove information technology to them. It’south a user-friendly way to see whether your partner is on the manner domicile from work still or find your friends in a crowd.

Android phones have something similar in a Google app called Trusted Contacts, and of course, there are many third-party apps that help you share your real-time locations with people.

Of course, this is only with your permission, simply it just shows how pervasive this engineering science is. Afterwards all, it’s the same engineering you lot can use to remotely runway your lost iPhone or Android phone in example you lose it. But it’s accessible to whatever app that asks for access to your location in the background.

What Yous Tin can Do About It: Exist careful about who you lot share your real-time location with.