Blog: Android

Why I think that U.S. house is hounded by phone trackers

Ian Williams 25 Jan 2016

After the BBC contacted us for comment on this story I thought it’d be useful and interesting to share the details that were omitted, as well as the reasoning behind some of my assumptions (none of which involve the Bermuda triangle BTW).

The consensus here on the original article was that this is probably down to a single non-GPS location service such as WiFi fingerprinting or cell tower triangulation, that is placing these stolen phones in this location.

I tend to agree that this is the most likely explanation too, as Wi-Fi is the prime contender due to it being cross-device and mobile carrier independent.

So, what is likely to be going on here?

My theory, based on the very limited information available is this (assuming all of these people looking for their phone have had them stolen, or lost in the same, or similar location):

  1. Some little toerag is stealing peoples’ phones and taking them to the same location.
  2. That location has almost zero cell tower coverage- which is likely if this is a rural location.
  3. The location also has at least one broadcasting Wi-Fi device with a MAC/SSID that was previously installed or used at the location being identified by the phones as their location.
  4. The phones cannot get a GPS fix, and cannot triangulate due to lack of cell towers, so they fall back to using Wi-Fi location as it is the most accurate method it has available.
  5. When it does manage to get a cell tower connection it manages to upload this location to the servers.

Here’s the reasoning behind some of my assumptions

1. If people are turning up at your house looking for their phone, they live within a reasonable distance. This suggests that this is not people from all over the country/world being told that their phone is at your house. Also, if the police are willing to believe that the phone may be located in your house, as they seem to have at least once from the article, then the ‘victims’ are also probably reasonably local. At least to a state level I would guess. I think this helps point towards a local thief, either of opportunity or specifically targeting cell phones.

2. If the Atlanta is the one in Idaho, rather than Georgia, then there are some very rural and hard to access places in that state, giving credence to the argument that cell tower triangulation would not be reliable. And that if the phones are kept indoors that GPS would also not be producing fixes that the phone is willing to use over a strong Wi-Fi signal.

3. The moved/stolen/reused Wi-Fi router is something that just best fits the facts available. Other explanations would be a Wi-Fi device near the phones actual location that has been uploaded to one of these location databases with bad location data.

4. I have actually seen a person’s location data hop around a map where a router has been relocated due to a house move, and before the databases of the routers location have had chance to be updated.

5. It’s also possible that someone who steals phones might have stolen or reused a Wi-Fi router that may previously have been used at this address, and the StreetView van hasn’t driven past their Unabomber style mountain shack to correct the router’s location yet.

What can be done?

There is a lot of speculation here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. The people with the information at hand to solve this mystery are Google and Apple, as they would have enough information in their logs to clear this up fairly easily. When a location is sent to their services I would also imagine the method used to fix the location would also be logged. They would also have valuable location history data, which would also serve to track the phone from its point of loss to its final reported position.