Concerns about tracking mobile phones

In GSM Hacks, Urban Espionage on April 29, 2006 at 8:53 am

If your mobile phone is on the Vodafone network, try keying this into your mobile phone:

*#102# (then press call or send).

You should receive a message back telling you your location area code and the nearest transmitter to you. This doesn't work on all phones, but it is interesting when it does. Basically, what you have just done is what anyone with access to your mobile phone network can do at any time: find out exactly where you are.

Of course, this can be a useful feature of modern technology. Imagine your car has broken down and you're not sure where you are; certain recovery agencies can locate you from your mobile phone signal. The police can track criminals, and locate stolen handsets.

What worries me, however, is the growing number of companies offering services where an individual can track another's location through their mobile phone. Generally this is aimed at parents wanting to ensure their children's safety, or companies tracking employees. Yet a recent article in the Guardian newspaper highlights the risk that people may be abusing this facility to track people without their consent:

I can't quite believe my eyes: I knew that the police could do this, and
telecommunications companies, but not any old random person with five minutes
access to someone else's phone. I can't find anything in her mobile that could
possibly let her know that I'm checking her location. As devious systems go,
it's foolproof. I set up the website to track her at regular intervals, take a
snapshot of her whereabouts automatically, every half hour, and plot her path on
the map, so that I can view it at my leisure. It felt, I have to say,
exceedingly wrong. (Ben GoldacreWednesday February 1, 2006)

It seems that anyone with just a few minute's access to another's phone can set up this service without consent. Of course, most of these companies state that regular messages are sent to the receiptant's handset to ensure they are aware of the tracking, yet I fear such services may elicit much abuse of privacy. For example:

Your mobile phone company could make money from selling information about your
location to the companies that offer this service. (Ben Goldacre)

Or worse, you could be tracked without your knowledge by your partner, your boss, a malicious stalker… The best advice is this: if you suspect someone could be tracking you, call your service provider and ask them. By law, it should not be done without your consent.

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