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kohli

Re: Network does not see tower

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In all modern mobile networks, the operator can calculate where a particular subscriber's phone is located whenever the phone is powered on and registered with the network. The ability to do this results from the way the mobile network is built, and is commonly called triangulation.

 

One way the operator can do this is to observe the signal strength that different towers observe from a particular subscriber's mobile phone, and then calculate where that phone must be located in order to account for these observations. The accuracy with which the operator can figure out a subscriber's location varies depending on many factors, including the technology the operator uses and how many cell towers they have in an area. Very often, it is accurate to about the level of a city block, but in some systems it can be more accurate.

 

There is no way to hide from this kind of tracking as long as your mobile phone is powered on and transmitting signals to an operator's network. Although normally only the mobile operator itself can perform this kind of tracking, a government could force the operator to turn over location data about a user (in real-time or as a matter of historical record). In 2010, a German privacy advocate named Malte Spitz used privacy laws to get his mobile operator to turn over the records that it had about his records; he chose to publish them as an educational resource so that other people could understand how mobile operators can monitor users this way. (You can visit here to see what the operator knew about him.) The possibility of government access to this sort of data is not theoretical: it is already being widely used by law enforcement agencies in countries like the United States.

 

Another related kind of government request is called a tower dump; in this case, a government asks a mobile operator for a list of all of the mobile devices that were present in a certain area at a certain time. This could be used to investigate a crime, or to find out who was present at a particular protest. (Reportedly, the Ukrainian government used a tower dump for this purpose in 2014, to make a list of all of the people whose mobile phones were present at an anti-government protest.)

 

Carriers also exchange data with one another about the location from which a device is currently connecting. This data is frequently somewhat less precise than tracking data that aggregates multiple towers' observations, but it can still be used as the basis for services that track an individual device—including commercial services that query these records to find where an individual phone is currently connecting to the mobile network, and make the results available to governmental or private customers. (The Washington Post reported on how readily available this tracking information has become.) Unlike the previous tracking methods, this tracking does not involve forcing carriers to turn over user data; instead, this technique uses location data that has been made available on a commercial basis.

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