Remove the battery

As a software developer deeply involved in providing location information to applications running on cell phones I have some advice if this concerns you:

Amid all the furor over the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program a few years ago, a mini-revolt was brewing over another type of federal snooping that was getting no public attention at all. Federal prosecutors were seeking what seemed to be unusually sensitive records: internal data from telecommunications companies that showed the locations of their customers’ cell phones—sometimes in real time, sometimes after the fact.

Prosecutors “were using the cell phone as a surreptitious tracking device,” said Stephen W. Smith, a federal magistrate in Houston. “And I started asking the U.S. Attorney’s Office, ‘What is the legal authority for this? What is the legal standard for getting this information?’ “

Those questions are now at the core of a constitutional clash between President Obama’s Justice Department and civil libertarians alarmed by what they see as the government’s relentless intrusion into the private lives of citizens. There are numerous other fronts in the privacy wars—about the content of e-mails, for instance, and access to bank records and credit-card transactions. The Feds now can quietly get all that information. But cell-phone tracking is among the more unsettling forms of government surveillance, conjuring up Orwellian images of Big Brother secretly following your movements through the small device in your pocket.

The tracking is possible because either the phones have tiny GPS units inside or each phone call is routed through towers that can be used to pinpoint a phone’s location to areas as small as a city block. This capability to trace ever more precise cell-phone locations has been spurred by a Federal Communications Commission rule designed to help police and other emergency officers during 911 calls. But the FBI and other law-enforcement outfits have been obtaining more and more records of cell-phone locations—without notifying the targets or getting judicial warrants establishing “probable cause,” according to law-enforcement officials, court records, and telecommunication executives. (The Justice Department draws a distinction between cell-tower data and GPS information, according to a spokeswoman, and will often get warrants for the latter.)

Al Gidari, a telecommunications lawyer who represents several wireless providers, tells NEWSWEEK that the companies are now getting “thousands of these requests per month,” and the amount has grown “exponentially” over the past few years.

Of course this is a two edged sword. If they can use your cell phone as evidence you were at a given location then you can use it to show you were not at some location. Leave your phone at work/home or in a friends car if you need to take supplies to your Jewish friends in the attic.

My advice is that no matter how careful you are with the applications you install or “disabling” the GPS or location services that isn’t good enough. The cell phone company will still know where your phone is within a few hundred yards anytime it is turned on. And with some phones it’s possible for you to think it is turned off when it actually is still functional at a level sufficient for your cell phone service provider to get location information.

As a friend of mine in the cell phone manufacturing business once told me, “I don’t know exactly what’s in the phone software. But I do know the phone only has one battery.”


8 thoughts on “Remove the battery

  1. “I don’t know exactly what’s in the phone software. But I do know the phone only has one battery.”

    The phone only has one obvious, removable battery. How many capacitors, of what capacity? How many tiny rechargable batteries (think hearing aid)? How much power is needed for one/minute microbursts that the nearest cell towers can pick up? How much less power to read the embedded GPS chip and store the lat/long numbers into the hidden NVRAM?

    When taking supplies to your Jewish friends in the attic, send someone with your cellphone somewhere else.

  2. Yes, and what about the growing numbers of cell phones without removable batteries?

    I’m not a conspiracy guy, but I wonder why Apple hasn’t allowed replaceable batteries in Ipods, Iphones, etc.?

    And are they REALLY off, even if they are turned off?


  3. Bill: “And are they REALLY off, even if they are turned off?”

    According to an engineer who works with cell phones, only the user interface is turned off, not the actual processor send/receive functions.

    So my question is, what about killing the signal with aluminum foil wrapped around the unit at times when you do not want to be a beacon to the thugs and looters.

  4. +1 on Terry. My electromagnetics courses were years ( make that decades ) ago, but surely shielding these things isn’t that hard.

  5. Aluminum foil works well. Just make sure you have completely surrounded it. No little gaps or even the charging cable should break the “seal”. Two or ten layers will make sure. Expect the battery life to be short if it is trying to make a connection with a cell in this condition. Put it in “Airplane Mode” to make it less likely to have a dead battery when you remove it from its cocoon.

  6. Scott,

    The GPS is off the table. They are very power hungry and need many seconds (to minutes) for a cold start. With warm start they can give an answer in a few seconds (say less than five) but that takes power to keep them warm.

    Short handshakes with the cell towers every minute or so is possible for a while but that is what they do now while in “standby” mode. With the main battery out you are talking a specially built phone to get even an hour of tracking.

  7. I believe the Apple products use sealed batteries for design, not malevolent, reasons. It is much easier to build a feeling of quality into a device when the number of shell holes is reduced. See my Droid’s ever escaping battery cover for a good example of what to avoid.

    However, I’m glad I had the option of a removable battery with crappy cover versus a non-removable battery. I don’t know when I’ll need to avoid the thought police, but options are always nice!

  8. My Samsung Rugby actually seems to get the best of both worlds. It has a removable battery, but it uses a 1/4 turn metal fastener with a screw slot to hold it in. It would take a lot of abuse to break it open, but you can replace or remove the battery if you need to by using a regular screwdriver or coin.

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