As technology advances, debates continue to arise over geographical tracking. Today, cell service providers, internet service providers, and other parties can track your location through your devices, including your smartphone.
But if you have an Android phone, what happens when it’s turned off? Can your location still be tracked?
I wrote a significate portion of the code used for “Location Services” on Windows Phone 7. I understand as much as almost anyone on obtaining location information from the phone side of things. Obtaining location from the carrier side is different, but I can make some intelligent speculation about that.
The basics of what I read in the article above is true:
When you turn your phone off, you’re temporarily deactivating all of its functions, including wireless communication. By cutting this off, your phone cannot be tracked via cell tower triangulation or GPS. The only location that can be discerned using these methods is that which was last shown before the device was turned off.
So, the general answer is no, your phone cannot be tracked when switched off.
They go on to say:
But this has been called into question numerous times.
There have been talks of certain authorities still being able to track your phone when turned off. For example, various reports have come out over the years claiming that the NSA (National Security Agency) can track a turned-off device. For example, Slate published a piece in 2013 discussing the NSA’s alleged tracking of phones, as briefly mentioned in a Washington Post story.
In the same piece, Slate mentioned that in 2006, it was reported that the FBI had “deployed spyware to infect suspects’ mobile phones and record data even when they were turned off”. A CNET post was referred to here as the source. It is not known if the NSA is truly capable of tracking phones while turned off, but the reports mentioned seem to indicate that this is the case to some extent.
By September 2004, a new NSA technique enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off. JSOC troops called this “The Find,” and it gave them thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq, according to members of the unit.
This is a very interesting claim.
It was in about 2010 through 2011 I was writing the location services code for Windows Phone 7. Had I read the Washington Post article from a half dozen years earlier I would have given it something like a 25% chance of being correct. That assessment would have been unchanged today except for another data point.
I recently I talked to someone who told me, “I know for a fact that GCHQ can track phones even if they are turned off.” This was not someone who received their electrical engineering degree out of a tin-foil hat. It was someone who I have a lot of respect for as an electrical engineer.
That conversation and the article above which I stumbled across has caused me to reevaluate my position on this claim. I have given the problem some thought. With the right equipment, I can imagine some plausible ways this might be possible.
Here are some hints:
- The power button is not a mechanical power switch. It is similar to other mechanical buttons on the phone. There is at least some portion of the electronics “alive” enough to recognize the switch has been pressed.
- Your credit cards, smart car keys, passport, shoplifted merchandise, automatic road toll cards, and company ID badges can all be identified at varying distances.