Location-based services are aplenty in this smartphone era, and mobile phone tracking has become a child’s play these days. But tracking a turned off phone is considered impossible, and rightly so. When you turn off your phone, it will stop communicating with nearby cell towers and can be traced only to the location it was in when it was powered down. GPS will be of no help as it consistently needs cellular and/or internet access to gather the location details.
According to a report from Washington Post, NSA is capable of tracking cell phones even when they are turned off. And this isn’t something new. As per the report, NSA has been using this technique, dubbed “The Find”, ever since September 2004. This technique was used in Iraq, and it helped identify “thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq,” according to a special operation officer who was interviewed by Post.
How NSA can track turned off phones?
The Washington Post story doesn’t throw light on this. But the only way NSA could track switched off phones must be by infecting the handsets with Trojans. That would force the handsets to continue emitting a signal even if the phone is in standby mode unless the battery is removed. When the battery is removed, the compromised handset will not have a power source to emit the signals, and hence would fail to share its location details.
But infecting the phones to track its location isn’t something new. Back in 2006, CNET had reported how FBI had deployed spyware to infect suspects’ mobile phones and record data even when they were turned off. It’s quite plausible that NSA used similar techniques in Iraq, albeit on a larger scale.
Tracking Switched off phones with dedicated chips
Robert David Graham of Errata Security points out to the intricacies of the terms “off”, “track”, and “phone”. “The best way to track an ‘off’ phone is to — secretly — install a chip, connected to the phone’s battery supply” says, Graham. “Thus, even when the phone is ‘off,’ that added chip would still be ‘on.’ In this case, it’s not really the phone itself that’s being tracked, but that chip.“. In layman terms, this should probably explain why USA banned Chinese networking companies like Huawei and ZTE.
Some of the older feature phones may not actually turn off, even if they appear to be powered down. They would have a baseband processor power up every 10 minutes or so to retrieve SMS messages, but not phone calls. That’s where the definition of “off” comes into the picture. Unless the battery is removed, some phones can still be tracked. Now with smartphones getting unibody designs and non-removable backs, removing battery is nearly out of question, so yes, your smartphone can be tracked even if it’s switched off if it’s infected with trojans. An upcoming smartphone from Lenovo, dubbed the Lenovo Z5 promises half an hour of voice calls even after the battery reaches 0%. Is that an indication that smartphones are not really “off” even after the phone shuts down?
Technically speaking, an agency like NSA can tweak the firmware of your handsets in order to track them even when they are switched off. Considering how massive the data collection has been by NSA since 9/11 attacks, it would be scary to imagine thousands and millions of people being tracked using the above technique. Till now, the leaks have revealed that NSA maintains a huge database of phone calls made by millions of Americans and outsiders, and they do not include location data. But the rate at which the new leaks are emerging, it should keep the privacy freaks on tenterhooks.