Do not just turn off the GPS so no one can locate you: a team of researchers has discovered that there are other sensors with which the smartphone can be tracked.

Did you turn off your smartphone’s GPS so no one can spy on and prevent someone from tracking your movements? It will not help much. From what emerged from a survey by Northeastern University, sensors to quantify the speed of movement or the direction in which the latest devices are pointing are able, even without having access to the actual location, to provide enough information to make the phone traceable.

Researcher Sashank Narain said that “not many people are aware of this problem, especially because when we think of the location we are reminded of the GPS on the phone”.
Tracking can instead be done through other systems, let’s see which ones.

How to track smartphones without GPS

The persons responsible for the involuntary localization are the accelerometer, the magnetometer and the gyroscope: these are the sensors present in the smartphones used by the researchers to track down several people with Android devices and GPS off. These users, who knew about the experiment, drove to Boston, Waltham, Massachusetts and London after installing an app on their phone.

The results indicate that in some cities the localization would be easier than in others, for example in Boston, where there are curved roads and particular turns, accuracy can reach up to 50%, while “in a place like Manhattan, which is similar to a grid, it is much more difficult”.

The more information you have and the easier it is to find the smartphone concerned, in fact it is easier to find data such as housing, work place and travel for a person who travels the same way every day. Accuracy in these cases can go up to 90%, a percentage that researchers believe will increase with time.

Guevara Noubir, a professor at Northeastern University who took part in the research, said “we did not expect such accuracy. These sensors, evolving and increasing in accuracy, could become one of the main means for invading users’ privacy “.

Although the experiment was conducted on Android, Noubir expects it would also work on the iPhone, given the presence of the same sensors with similar permissions.

Localization and privacy

Professor Guevara Noubir also stated that “there is an entire area called the side channel attack, which attacks incoming information to lead to an attack on security“, referring in particular to the risks to privacy.
“People do not understand how their smartphone, with access to all those sensors, is in a sense the best spy device imaginable.”

Regarding these results, Google said that Android P, the next OS, will reduce access to sensors such as the accelerometer and the gyroscope. However, a spokesperson has stated that this research also highlights the difficulty of tracking without GPS.

However, this is a further concern at a time when privacy protection is becoming one of the most discussed topics, with the main competitors in the mobile sector, Apple and Samsung, trying to improve the protection of personal data and new engines of research that focus on confidentiality to make war on Google.


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