66 votes

That's No Phone. That's My Tracker

by Peter Maass and Megha Rajagopalan | ProPublica
July 13, 2012,

7/20/2012: This story has been updated.

The device in your purse or jeans that you think is a cellphone -- guess again. It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. Let's stop calling them phones. They are trackers.

Most doubts about the principal function of these devices were erased when it was disclosed Monday that cellphone carriers responded 1.3 million times last year to law enforcement requests for call data. That wasn't even a complete count, because T-Mobile, one of the largest carriers, did not initially reveal its total. It appears that millions of cellphone users have been swept up in government surveillance of their calls and where they made them from. Many police agencies don't obtain a search warrant when requesting location data from carriers.

Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, these devices are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up -- and more. Much of that data is shared with companies that use it to offer us services they think we want.

We have all heard about the wonders of frictionless sharing, whereby social networks automatically let our friends know what we are reading or listening to, but what we hear less about is frictionless surveillance. Though we invite some tracking -- think of our mapping requests as we try to find a restaurant in a strange part of town -- much of it is done without our awareness.

"Every year, private companies spend millions of dollars developing new services that track, store and share the words, movements and even the thoughts of their customers," writes Paul Ohm, a law professor at the University of Colorado. "These invasive services have proved irresistible to consumers, and millions now own sophisticated tracking devices (smartphones) studded with sensors and always connected to the Internet."

Mr. Ohm labels them tracking devices. So does Jacob Appelbaum, a developer and spokesman for the Tor project, which allows users to browse the Web anonymously. Scholars have called them minicomputers and robots. Everyone is struggling to find the right tag, because "cellphone" and "smartphone" are inadequate. This is not a semantic game. Names matter, quite a bit. In politics and advertising, framing is regarded as key because what you call something influences what you think about it. That's why there are battles over the tags "Obamacare" and "death panels."

In just the past few years, cellphone companies have honed their geographic technology, which has become almost pinpoint. The surveillance and privacy implications are quite simple. If someone knows exactly where you are, they probably know what you are doing. Cellular systems constantly check and record the location of all phones on their networks -- and this data is particularly treasured by police departments and online advertisers. Cell companies typically retain your geographic information for a year or longer, according to data gathered by the Justice Department.

What's the harm? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruling about police use of tracking devices, noted that GPS data can reveal whether a person "is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups -- and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts." Even the most gregarious of sharers might not reveal all that on Facebook.

There is an even more fascinating and diabolical element to what can be done with location information. New research suggests that by cross-referencing your geographical data with that of your friends, it's possible to predict your future whereabouts with a much higher degree of accuracy. This is what's known as predictive modeling, and it requires nothing more than your cellphone data.

If we are naïve to think of them as phones, what should we call them? Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, argues that they are robots for which we the proud owners are merely the hands and feet. "They see everything, they're aware of our position, our relationship to other human beings and other robots, they mediate an information stream around us," he has said.

Over time, we've used these devices less for their original purpose. A recent survey by O2, a British cell carrier, showed that making calls is only the fifth-most-popular activity for smartphones; more popular uses are Web browsing, checking social networks, playing games and listening to music. Smartphones are taking over the functions that laptops, cameras, credit cards and watches once performed for us.

If you want to avoid some surveillance, the best option is to use cash for prepaid cellphones that do not require identification. The phones transmit location information to the cell carrier and keep track of the numbers you call, but they are not connected to you by name. Destroy the phone or just drop it into a trash bin, and its data cannot be tied to you. These cellphones, known as burners, are the threads that connect privacy activists, Burmese dissidents and coke dealers.

Prepaids are a hassle, though. What can the rest of us do? Leaving your smartphone at home will help, but then what's the point of having it? Turning it off when you're not using it will also help, because it will cease pinging your location to the cell company, but are you really going to do that? Shutting it down does not even guarantee it's off -- malware can keep it on without your realizing it. The only way to be sure is to take out the battery. Guess what? If you have an iPhone, you will need a tiny screwdriver to remove the back cover. Doing that will void your warranty.

Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively about these issues and believes we are confronted with two choices: "Don't have a cellphone or just accept that you're living in the Panopticon."

There is another option. People could call them trackers. It's a neutral term, because it covers positive activities -- monitoring appointments, bank balances, friends -- and problematic ones, like the government and advertisers watching us.

We can love or hate these devices -- or love and hate them -- but let's start calling them what they are so we can fully understand what they do.


An earlier version of this story said T-Mobile had refused to reveal how many cellphone data requests it received from law enforcement. Based on additional information from T-Mobile and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., it has been updated to say the company did not initially reveal its total. After the story appeared, T-Mobile responded that it had privately provided a number to Markey's office before the congressman, on July 9, publicly reported that other cell companies had answered 1.3 million data requests from law enforcement last year. Markey's office said T-Mobile declined repeated appeals to make the company's number public, so the office agreed to keep it confidential. The figure -- 191,000 requests in 2011 -- was not included in T-Mobile's May 23 letter of response to Markey, who had written to nine carriers asking for the data. In an email to ProPublica, company spokesman Glenn Zaccara explained: "Because each carrier has different ways of calculating the total number of lawful requests, we were initially concerned the comparison could lead to an inaccurate portrayal." T-Mobile did not respond to specific questions about conversations with Markey's office. Zaccara said T-Mobile gave the number on July 9 to TR Daily, a subscription-only trade publication.

This story was co-published with The New York Times. This story is not subject to our Creative Commons license.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Sorry, this is old news:

Sorry, this is old news: 2009

"Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with customer location data more than 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009, according to a company manager who disclosed the statistic at a non-public interception and wiretapping conference in October.

The manager also revealed the existence of a previously undisclosed web portal that Sprint provides law enforcement to conduct automated “pings” to track users. Through the website, authorized agents can type in a mobile phone number and obtain global positioning system (GPS) coordinates of the phone."


Maybe so...

But it still needs repeating.

I agree.

So why do we live as though we can not live without these devices?

Does anyone remember when portable phones were an expensive luxury and we relied on land lines? We were not able to text every millisecond of the day, people drove their cars and walked without simulataneosly talking and texting and all the negatives that go along with that behavior.

How in the world did people survive before cell phones?

The poorest of the poor have the latest cell phone design...even cloistered societies. Wow...can anyone see how easily they have infiltrated our lives without the use of any kind of force?

As brilliant as it is insidious.

The law cannot make a wicked person virtuous…God’s grace alone can accomplish such a thing.
Ron Paul - The Revolution

Setting a good example is a far better way to spread ideals than through force of arms. Ron Paul

That's not a pickle in my pocket babe

that's my police state tracking device.

There is nothing strange about having a bar of soap in your right pocket, it's just what's happening.

We don't even realize the depth of surveillance we're under

Best advice I have is to not put things "out there" that "they" can use against you. Talk about peaceful solutions to our problems, share inspiring news/articles for positive change rather than anarchistic views. You cannot fight fire with fire. Be a positive influence by putting out positive information. Yeah so they know more about us than our loved ones do. Amazon knows better what kind of books I'd like than my wife does. This is our reality and it's been so for longer than we know. But do we cower in fear and go "off the grid"? As if they can't find you anywhere. The question is, are you giving them reasons too?

Besides, look at the way people have used technology to advance revolutionary movements all over the world! We can outsmart them because this tech is a part of our lives and a means of instant connection with one another. The internet was a military tool, but then "they" got greedy and turned it into a consumer product, unwittingly giving humanity a tool for global consciousness and connectedness.

The problem, again, is with the people behind the scenes. They're too old to understand what this all means. They refer to the internet as if it's the National Enquirer full of conspiracy theories and such with the classic comment, "You can't believe everything you read on the internet". Turns out that's our ONLY source of REAL INFORMATION since the MSM has done a wonderful job of showing its true face. Again, thanks to the technology we now have a rise in citizen media.

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience"—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

How do we change it

Well OK, cell phones are trackers and bugging devices... true
The government may be spying on you..... true
Companies are using and selling your data..... true

The problem is a property rights issue, is your data your property.

When you download an app and agree to the terms are you giving away your rights?

Someday I guess people will have phone switching parties.

For now we need to pressure companies the only way that works... take your business elsewhere or threaten to.

We also need to work in the legislative area to have laws passed that respect our privacy ( maybe an amendment! ) and repeal laws that infringe on it.

Or we can pass notes like children.

There is no reason we should not enjoy the bounty of technology except the fear of evil. So it's the evil and the fear we must battle. Technology will only get better, people need to get better too.

What good is Freedom of the press, if the Press will not Press For Freedom? - UR


Ask not what your government can do for the people, ask what can the people do for the people. - UR

Silent Sound Spread Spectrum

You might want to research it.
When you're done with that check into MK Ultra, the Monarch Project & the Delphi Technique.

Tracking The Trackers

I use a great free tool on my desktop thru a mozilla browser called collusion. It`s a free app and if you ever had any doubts about being tracked, this will truly freak you out. When you think about it don`t landlines all go thru a computer at some point during communications? Big Brother is here and thriving and if anyone tells you there is a way to beat this... remember the Buddha on the road. So what happens if you just refuse to play this cat and mouse game with The Powers That Be, they~ve got an RFID chip with your name on it, and i guarantee, a plan to put it in you. Try `collusion` for a glimpse of the future they have planned for everyone.

If every great fortune has a great crime behind it, then the greatest fortunes have the greatest criminals behind them. End the fed!



my 2c

turning it off is not safe - the IMEI and SIM are still connected to the network as is the GPS chip as long as it has voltage available.

that's why the FCC has made the GPS chip mandatory in all cellphones sold in the US by 2014.

best solution - a very old phone that's not linked to you, a prepaid card and a 5$ Faraday Bag from ebay.


Stop using the phone manifesto!

Stop using the phone manifesto! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVVpPD9PIPQ

Positive support for Ron Paul ideas! Support from the Restoration and Liberty Movement on http://cristianpaduraru.com

VOIP can replace mobiles?

I mean independent http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_over_IP not skype.

Positive support for Ron Paul ideas! Support from the Restoration and Liberty Movement on http://cristianpaduraru.com

And people still wonder

why I don't have one.
The landline is good enough for me, no matter how many complaints I get about only having that kind of telecommunication instrument. I refuse to be 'tracked'.

If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.
James Madison

and its data cannot be tied to you.

The phones transmit location information to the cell carrier and keep track of the numbers you call, but they are not connected to you by name. Destroy the phone or just drop it into a trash bin, and its data cannot be tied to you.

until they link the location of the "anonymous" phone to your residence... :(

I am Ron Paul.

the great thing about this is

the great thing about this is that it is voluntary

Well, yes, but...

Okay - it's voluntary. Fine. But it's also becoming an essential. Many people carry a Smartphone for work and are expected to use it. More and more, utilization of technology will become intrinsically connected to our basic every day activities.

Think about it. Everyone drives a car. Sure, you can still walk, run, bicycle, or ride a horse, but you are very limited in your transportation if those are your only options. Cars have become so intrinsically connected to our lives that to live without the technology puts you at a severe disadvantage to everyone around you (in America at least). Cars are really still just a luxury and you can technically still live without them - however you shouldn't have to for the sake of your liberty. Smartphones are still a luxury - and a newer one that is easier to live without than cars... for now.

I mean, the internet from you computer is also voluntary, but that doesn't (shouldn't) mean you have to give up all your privacy to your ISP & through them the government just because you surf at home. This must be handled on a legal level in order to protect our freedom.

"For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God."
(1 Peter 2:15-16)

could all this tracking

effect your quality of service? I used to get a great signal at my home but lately Im lucky if I even get a signal.

Mathew 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

i wonder...

i wonder the same thing...

I use Blue Wave, but don't expect one of THEIR silly taglines.

There's no need for an implantable chip

When people voluntarily carry one on their own.

The government is giving out free cell phones, and merchants are learning to accept purchases through phones as well.

Consider Making A Topic

...out of this. I would love to respond....a lot. And, I think it borders on some other important areas as well.


Your Article Made Me Think

..Post hit me perhaps on a couple of side-notes to it. On another thread we were talking (or I was) about how most huge technological companies are funded initially, or later, by DARPA. RHINO suggested I read "Tuxedo Park" to better understand how this business/government transition came about.

The result, of course, is duel purposes. And you make your deal with the devil front end. All of a sudden your technology is not only being used and marketed for very useful and desired consumer purposes, but also for all kinds of surveillance, war technology, synthetic foods, drugs with nefarious purpose, etc. I can see how they get sucked in.

So our phones are really *trackers* with multiple purposes. It occurred to me that it might actually be helpful if we stopped *naming* things by what we are told they are and instead by what we use them for. So, our phones are *trackers* for us and *trackers for the businesses involved* and *trackers* for the government. Bleshck..truth hurts!

I have a DROID only because I need the square and the square is such a deal comparatively and offers so much more that you have to have it if you process credit cards. Very clever planning behind that. Wasn't hard to get me to sign up for that tracker. It has all my credit sales information. And, I know that is being very easily tracked in a lot of ways and for a lot of purposes that I didn't sign up for. I can see how the consumer gets sucked in..

Don't know how I can feel good about these *trackers*...(but have to have them.) Now take your soma.


sure are...

i recently found out my phones ip belongs to the DOD network ... apparently they are sharing with phone companies according to an article... but with all the weird problems ive had with it.. im really startin to wonder.