Can You Track Switched Off Phones? Apparently, NSA Can!
Wanna track switched off phones? Not so fast!
- Tracking a switched off cell phone is next to impossible. Well, that’s a conventional belief.
- According to a report from Washington Post, NSA is capable of tracking cell phones even when they are turned off.
- As per the report, NSA has been using this technique, dubbed “The Find”, ever since September 2004.
- For more such insightful articles on phone tracking, check out our phone tracking hub.
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. Of course, in an ideal situation, you would have installed one of those Android tracking apps or iPhone tracking apps, but most people realize only AFTER losing the phone.
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 anything 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 their location isn’t something new. Back in 2006, CNET had reported how the 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’s terms, this should probably explain why the 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 ten 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 the 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?
How to locate a lost cell phone that is turned off?
As we mentioned above, the definition of “OFF” matters a lot here. Someone might have taken off the SIM card from the phone but might still be connected to the internet via WiFI. In such cases, there are a couple of options. Let’s go through them one by one.
1. How to track an Android phone that’s turned off?
The first step to finding your lost Android phone is by using Google’s Find My Device. Assuming your phone is still connected to the internet and it’s still linked to your Google account, you can visit Google “Find my Device” page when logged in to your Google account and try to locate your phone. Worst case, you will find the last connected location.
The other option is to check your Google location history. If your phone is still connected to your Google account, you should be able to see where your phone traveled.
Alternatively, if someone who has your phone uses the camera to take photos, it can get synced with your Google Photos account, so keep an eye on that as well.
2. How to locate iPhone that is turned off?
It’s not just Android users who are at risk of losing their phones. iPhones can slip out of your pocket, too. This is a major problem if you rely on your phone for work. For example, you can’t make calls if your phone is unavailable. Fortunately, there are some things you can do if you’re a Mac user. Just use the Find My iPhone feature. However, if your phone is off, you may need to take other steps to ensure that you can retrieve your lost device, if possible.
You can log in to Find My via iCloud either through your other Apple device or with your friend’s iPhone. If your device is turned on, you will be able to see it on the map. If it is off, you can tap on “Lost Mode” so you can see the last known location of your device.
So can you track switched off phones?
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 the NSA since the 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.
If you are reading this article AFTER losing your phone, the best option (assuming it’s running Android) is to check your Google Location History. That should give you an idea as to where the phone was at the time it was switched off. With iPhones, you need to check the Find My iPhone option through a web browser or another Apple device and then look for the last recorded location.