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Cheers - AE

Saturday, 24 July 2010

We know where you are.

Friends who know I use a Mac often believe I'm a closet Apple fanboy despite the fact that I will bitch and bag Apple at the drop of a hat, and those among them who have an iPhone and are deeply, deeply in love with it are incredulous that I haven't got one and don't intend to get one. Well, confession time - I did once want one but because I was having a row with Apple Australia at the time I was damned if I was going to give them another cent, and settled on a boggo Nokia instead. 'Oh, but it's so handy to get GPS,' they say. 'Bollocks,' I reply. For the price of an iPhone I could have my Nokia and a separate GPS and a brand new Melway for when the GPS instructions turn out to be wrong. And not only that, I wouldn't have to worry about making  a tinfoil hat so that Apple couldn't see my thoughts, or failing that see where I am.
A thief, Horatio Toure, who stole an Apple iPhone from its owner’s hands was arrested by American police within minutes after being tracked by global positioning system (GPS) software.
The 31 year-old snatched the highly-sought after phone from the hands of a software company employee who was testing a new application in San Francisco earlier this week.
But the hapless thief was arrested by police just nine minutes later after the iPhone tracked his every move.
Now, granted this was new software being tested and which happened to be on at the time, and Apple have said that if he'd turned the phone off it would have been game over as far as nicking him so quickly was concerned. But it occurs to me that with a bit of code here and there surely it would be possible to have a phone that turns itself on at regular intervals to give a little 'Here I Am' wave in the direction of Cupertino, or whoever pays them for that information. To be honest I really can't think of any reason why they would do that, but if it can be done then it is a concern. The fact that Apple are so bloodyminded about running anything other than their own or their approved software on their products and how dickish they are with licensing doesn't make me more confident.

I'm sure some people will look at this and think 'wow, what a great advert for an iPhone'. I think 'wow, I'm so glad I didn't buy one.' Paranoid? No, not really, but that's at least partly because I'm happy to use an obsolete 'dumb' phone, and you know what? It makes phone calls just fine.


tin foil hats reqd said...

You can be tracked just as quickly with an 'obsolete dumb phone'. Down to a few metres anyway.
Your phone is constantly searching for the best signal strengh and by triangulating the strenghs of 3 transmitters nearest to your phone a precise location can be identified.
They're called cell phones because the cell is the array of transmitters nearest to you.
Rumours abound that many cell phones can be tracked even when switched off as long as the battery is still charged.
Bad lads always remove their sim card and battery when going on a job.

Angry Exile said...

Yes, I know about cell triangulation and probably should have touched on that in the post (didn't occur to me for a while afterwards). However I've never heard a claim of GPS like accuracy before, which is how I'd describe 'down to a few metres'. Down to a few hundred metres is perfectly plausible, maybe even under a hundred in some places - urban areas with high cell density etc - and I could live with that. But a few metres? Have you got a source for that? Surely if it was that good we wouldn't actually need GPS at all, at least not in urban areas with good network coverage. That there are GPS units on phones and software to use them strongly suggests that cell triangulation is either not as accurate or not as reliable or both, which in turn implies that obsolete dumb phones can't be tracked 'just as quickly'.

Can they be tracked at all? Obviously yes, because anything that radiates anything - sound, heat, radio, take your pick - can be tracked and I take it for granted that I'm emitting a fuzzy location everywhere I go with my phone. But as quickly and accurately as a GPS enabled phone that's made to know it's location within a fart's whiff? That I doubt.

It comes own to what you're happy to live with, and for me a GPS enabled phone has got question marks over it that currently outweigh it's utility, especially since all I personally want from any phone is little more than to be able to talk to people who are a long way away. That said, and donning my tinfoil again, I'd be prepared to believe that even a fuzzy location signal potentially could be useful. Feeding a few weeks worth of data to a computer might show revealing patterns even if the location was a 200m diameter circle. I might have a play with a map and see if I can simulate that to see what it might show. Could be interesting.

Angry Exile said...

It occurs to me as well that any kind of cell phone tracking here in Oz is probably made more difficult because you don't have to go too far away from city centres for coverage to drop off (I'm in the inner suburbs and never get better than half signal strength on either of the networks I've used here), and you don't have to go too far from the cities themselves to lose coverage completely. You want a phone that works literally everywhere here, you need a sat-phone. I realise that dents my original argument for not buying an iPhone but I do have another one: I think Apple are cunts.

tin foil hats reqd said...

I think I exaggerated a bit with the 'within a few metres'. 50 metres is the best I've found on my search online. Still enough to say what street you're in I suppose.
I was thinking of the direct targetting of suspects where the missile homes in on the cell phones unique tx code. The IMEI - International Mobile Equipment Identity. Even changing the sim card won't save you from the missile. So if they really want to find you then they will find you.
Like you said the further you are from transmitter masts then the less accurate your location becomes.
Good summary here..

Bucko said...

I also have an old "dumb phone". Its completely unregistered.
You can track them by the transmitters when they are switched on but not when they are off.
Im sure, as you say, these modern ones could easliy be programmed to send a signal at intervals.
Thats also why I dont bother with sat navs. I'm convinced they will eventually be used for something like road pricing or even issuing speeding tickets by tracking your average speed.
AA route planner does the job just as well.
Oops, I've dropped my tin hat...

microdave said...

IIRC the (relative) inaccuracy of cell triangulation was part of the reason Google logged WiFi details when they sent the Street View cars around. By building a database of every SSID and where they were strongest, it's possible for the latest web enabled phones to use this instead....

I am also under the impression that even a phone which has been switched off can be remotely interrogated. So the only surefire method is to remove the battery, which as far as I'm aware isn't possible with the iPhone.

I still use an 8 year old NEC G9, by the way - it makes phone calls, and does so in places no modern phone will, even under my tinfoil hat...

JuliaM said...

"But it occurs to me that with a bit of code here and there surely it would be possible to have a phone that turns itself on at regular intervals to give a little 'Here I Am' wave in the direction of Cupertino, or whoever pays them for that information."

Seen the latest /facepalm from the Apple geniuses?

Angry Exile said...

Bucko, I'd have thought a satnav is much less liable to be tracked. The area covered by each satellite is going to be huge and even then aftermarket ones can only receive, or so I'd assume. Built in systems maybe. Actually isn't that how BMW Assist and so on work?

microdave, you've reminded me of something there. Is it just me or is 3g shithouse? It seems like I get a worse signal and use up the battery faster. I'll stick to GSM I think. And yes, small Apple products don't have removable batteries. My ancient iPod doesn't and newer Macbooks don't so probably no iPhone ever has. I think you send the fuckers back to Apple and they refurb it or something.

Julia, oh dear, it's turing into Apple's Vista, isn't it? It's not their first fuckup by any means but it could end up being their most embarrassing.

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