GPS Phone Data Could Be Used to Track You: Report

Dennis Faas's picture

A new study shows that it's possible to use mobile phone location data to find an individual. Researchers say that, in most cases, getting four confirmed locations for a person is enough to identify their handset.

The study's findings appear in the latest edition of Scientific Reports.

According to the researchers, most users understand and accept that mobile phone service providers track their locations. Customers are usually 'OK' with this because the data is kept confidential and only provided to law enforcement authorities after a warrant has been issued. (Source:

Anonymous Phone Records Not-So Secret

In theory, even if somebody accessed phone service data without permission, they'd have no way to tie it to a specific individual. However, the researchers say phone users give up location details in a range of other ways that could identify them.

For example, if your home or work address is publicly available because you've published them online, or because they are part of public records, hackers could use this information to acquire your location.

Locations can also be revealed when you knowingly, or unknowingly, include your location details when publishing a social network status update or photograph.

To test this idea, the researchers were granted access to 15 months worth of mobile phone data for 1.5 million users. This data told them where every phone had been once per hour during this time. They weren't told which phones corresponded to which users.

The researchers then set about taking known locations and times and cross-referencing that information with phone data.

Four Known Locations Make Near-Perfect Match

The results: with just two known points, the researchers could correctly identify more than half of all users. Once they knew where a person had been on four occasions, they had a 95 per cent chance of identifying their handset.

Luckily, the risks are fairly limited: a snooper would need to gain unauthorized access to phone records to take advantage of these patterns.

However, the researchers say their findings should be a reminder of the importance of data protection laws for both phone records and other location data. (Source:

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