All you need to track any phone’s location is a small bribe

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Your phone company constantly tracks your location, and that information is for sale.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

It’s not hard to get learn the location of almost any phone, according to a new report. All that’s required is some cash and the right contacts in a web of companies with access to the geolocation data collected by mobile phone companies.

Motherboard alleges that by giving a bounty hunter a few hundred dollars and a phone number, they were given the general area of the phone using that number. 

Tracking you can’t evade

Ultimately, this is possible because wireless phone companies are always tracking their customers. They don’t have the exact location, but knowing which cell towers a phone is connected to reveals the general area.

The phone companies then sell this information to aggregators like Zumigo and Microbilt.These turn around and sell the data to piecemeal to other businesses and individuals. Motherboard was able to get a price list from Microbilt showing that real-time tracking of a phone can be as little as $12.95.

Underhanded use

It would be difficult for a stalker or a suspicious boyfriend to get access to a phone’s geolocation data through one of the aggregators, as they have company policies that prevent this. But they sell access to this information to bail bondsmen (AKA bounty hunters) some of whom will do a location check for money under the table. That’s how Motherboard was able to obtain the location of the phone it wanted tracked.

At this time, it appears AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are all selling location information about their customers to aggregators. Verizon seems to be the exception among the big-four wireless carriers.

Apple works hard to protect the privacy of iPhone users, but this is something this company can do little about. The only way to prevent a wireless carrier from tracking a phone is to turn off all cellular functions, which isn’t very practical for a phone.