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Latest articles

The Four Myths of Mobile Phone Tracking

The smartphone thief threw the first punch. All Kenneth Schmidgall had wanted was for the thief to return his mobile phone. Schmidgall was a construction worker in San Diego: stout, with a shaved head and beefy hands. He had discovered that someone had just stolen his iPhone at a Reggae concert.

Mobile phones: Our Life Lines

The mobile phone has come to represent that which is dearest to us all: it contains our most personal conversations and our dearest memories. It has become our lifeline to those closest to us: our friends, our family, our life partners, our lovers.

We worry about our children and want to know where they are and what they’re up to. We know that if they carry a phone we can better keep tabs on them.

We have doubts about the trustworthiness of our spouses, our girlfriends or boyfriends: “Are they cheating on us?” we may wonder. If only we can use their mobile phone to monitor their calls, we may consider.

Or we simply don’t trust ourselves: forgetful, harried, disorganised; we’re often not sure where we put our phone and need to find it to get on with our lives. We activate the phone’s features to make it trackable from other devices.

The thief believed Schmidgall would never be able to track him down. The thief himself, though, had become victim to popular myths about mobile phone tracking.

Concert mobile phone theft on the rise

At the 2017 Coachella Music festival in California, a fan located his stolen iPhone via the Find my iPhone app and uncovered more than 100 other iPhones that were also stolen, all placed in one backpack, BBC reports.

Schmidgall’s buddy Greg Torkelson knew of an app that would help Schmidgall find his phone: Apple’s “Find my iPhone”, according to ABC News. The two tracked the mobile phone to a fellow who was riding a bike along the beach. Torkelson’s video of the incident shows Schmidgall and the thief punch each other in the face and pull at each other’s clothing. Finally, Schmidgall pepper-sprays the thief in the eyes, felling the pickpocket.

Later, Schmidgall told reporters:

It’s not the phone that’s so much important… It’s that people get away with this kind of stuff all the time with mobile phones being stolen.

Mobile phone Myths to Bust

While Schmidgall’s thief had been operating under the myth that no one could find him after a mobile phone theft, others may be surprised to find other falsehoods that may land them in some awkward situations.

Popular myths include:

  1. Tracking loved ones through their mobile phones is legal;
  2. You need the other person’s phone to install an app to track them;
  3. Mobile phone tracking apps require some programming skills to use;
  4. Mobile phone trackers only let you see where people are.

Myth #1: It’s legal to track adults through their mobile phones

In the US and alike in the UK, the laws protects mobile phone users from individuals who “intentionally access a protected computer without authorisation, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage and loss.”

For instance, let’s say a woman discovers her lover has installed a mobile tracking app on her smartphone without her permission. If she can prove to a court the installation caused her some mental anguish or material loss, she could theoretically sue the partner for all sorts of abuses, real and imagined.

So, with that in mind, try as best you can to gain permission from your partner to put something on her phone. Better yet, make it an agreement, in which you both grant permission to the other to install the software on one another’s phones out of concern for their safety and well-being.

Both in the UK and US, tracking the phone of your child (read minor) without permission is however legal.

Key Takeaways:

  • Mobile phone tracking without permission from the target (adult) is illegal;
  • The person you were tracking may be able to sue you if s/he can prove it caused her harm.

Myth #2: You need to install software on a target’s phone to track them

Find my Friends for Apple devices
Find my Friends for Apple devices

The most popular phone tracking service for iPhones is “Find my iPhone”. Find my iPhone is an app that comes preinstalled on Apple devices running iOS 9.0 and higher. You can download it from Apple’s app store for iPhone models running previous versions of the operating system; however, the app requires your phone runs at least iOS version 8.0. As long as the target phone has an iCloud account you can log into, and the Find my iPhone app is active on the target phone, you can track someone’s whereabouts.

The Technologies that Make Phone Tracking Possible

Every smartphone has a small device implanted in it called a GPS: Global Positioning System. The GPS in mobile phones enables the phones to become part of a network of satellites, the job of which is to identify to within a few yards the location of the tracking device. It’s this technology that allows us to navigate traffic through maps on our smartphones.

Even mobile phones that do not contain GPS devices can be tracked through nearby mobile phone towers. Mobile phones are designed to send out a signal to the towers in a constant state of readiness to call or be called. Phone companies keep historical logs of the locations of the phones, which law enforcement may ask for if they suspect a phone user has been doing something illegal.

Similarly, Apple bundled the Find My Friends app with iOS 9.0. You have to download the app onto phones with previous versions of the operating system, though the download only works on iOS 8 or higher. The app displays the map location of people in an iPhone’s contact list; however, your target must first have opened the Find My Friends app on their phone and actively chosen to share their location with you. The app does not track people on Android or Windows devices.

Google made it even easier than Apple to find devices and people: open the Security option in Android, select “remotely locate this device.” Then, log on to the Android Device Manager with the target device’s Google account to find the mobile phone.

Google and Apple’s services, though, require that the phone you want to track has its GPS on (see sidebar). If you want to be able to track a phone just through its mobile phone signal then you might want to investigate wireless carrier offerings. Mobile phone towers “triangulate” the location of phones and transmit the positioning information back to the carriers. While GPS is more accurate, having a cellular option — especially when tracking children — can be reassuring in case someone turns the GPS off on the phone.

Key Takeaways:

  • A smartphone app that solely relies on GPS to track mobile phones requires the app installed on the target phone;
  • Mobile phone service providers offer tracking plans that do not rely on GPS;
  • The location services that don’t use GPS instead send an SMS to target phones for consent to be located.

Workarounds for Getting a Trackable Phone on Someone Without Their Knowledge

Sometimes it’s just impossible to configure someone’s phone so you can track them or get their consent to have a tracking app installed. Whether you’re activating their iCloud account or downloading an app on their phone, there just seems no way to set up their phone to follow them.

One alternative to tracking the whereabouts of someone if you don’t have access to their phone is to “give them” one of your own — without their knowledge, of course. Here’s how, using one of your old, disused mobile phones or by buying a cheap phone you don’t mind losing. Whatever alternative you choose, the phone will become your “burner” phone.

  1. Download a mobile phone tracking app onto your phone and the burner phone;
  2. Buy and load a prepaid phone-service card on the burner phone;
  3. Follow any prompts the app displays on each phone to set it up so your phone follows the location of the burner phone;
  4. Be sure to fully charge the battery of the burner phone;
  5. Extend the life of the battery by attaching a battery case or battery pack to the burner phone;
  6. Turn off the ringer and alerts on the burner phone;
  7. Place and secure the modified burner phone in an unobtrusive place in the target person’s car: in the trunk, under one of the car seats, or perhaps even under the dashboard, depending on the car model.
  8. Check your mobile phone to make sure you are indeed able to track your target individual.

Myth #3 Mobile phone tracking apps require some programming skills to use

In Google Play store and App store you will find more than a hundred mobile phone tracking apps in their online stores. By and large, the apps are easy to download and install. Beware, there is a lot of junk out there, so be picky with what app you download; as many can be fake. Tip! Look for reviews, and amount of downloads, if there are any.

iPhone and iPad users can go to the Apple App Store and search on keywords like “Find My Phone” or “Mobile phone Tracking” to display apps that promise to find your device and those of your friends. You have to download the app you want to use onto your phone and onto the phone you want to track. Tap on the app that suits your fancy, then press the Install icon to download the app onto the phone. Android makes it just as easy to download and install apps on your phone. The only exception is Apple’s Find My Friends app, which comes pre-installed on Apple devices.

Some of the most popular and tested mobile phone tracking apps include: FollowMee, Family Locator, and Glympse.

FollowMee is a popular app for Apple and Android phones. The app is straight-forward to install. Though you do need to install the app on the target phone, you do not necessarily have to install it on your own phone. You can track someone by logging on to your FollowMe account in any web browser. You can view a map of the location of someone through the website’s map. The user interfaces for the app and website are rudimentary; however, it is easy enough to navigate the website to get the job done.

Family Locator is a slick app that you install on the target phone at a minimum. Like FollowMee, you can track people by logging on to your account on the company’s website. If you would like a less covert approach to phone tracking — as in the case of keeping tabs on family members — then download the app onto your own phone. The app permits you to create “circles” of friends and family. Each circle has an individual invitation code that is sent out to others through the app’s messaging feature. Recipients of the code confirm their permission to have their location tracked within the circle. With over 500,000 downloads of the app from the Android library and a rating of 4.5 out 5 stars from more than 100 users in the Apple Store, Family Locator has proven itself a stable and easy-to-use option for phone tracking.

Glympse is a cross-platform solution intended for members of groups running devices on any of Apple, Android or Windows platforms. The product is meant to enable people to see where each member of a group is and to organise activities based on their locations.

Target phones do not require the Glympse app installed on them; however, the contact must explicitly accept your invitation to have their location tracked. If they do not have Glympse on their phone, they will receive a text message with a link they can follow to their phone’s browser to give you permission to follow their location. If they accept the invitation, their location becomes visible to you on a map for an amount of time they designate.

Location tracking in Glympse has up to a four-hour limit, which the person being tracked can extend for another four hours (and so on) until they choose to close the tracking session.

Key Takeaways:

  • In Google Play store and App store you will find at least a hundred apps to track mobile phones (although beware, many of them are fake);
  • In most cases you’ll need to install mobile phone tracking apps on your phone, and in all cases on the target phone;
  • Glympse only requires the target phone confirm an SMS text asking permission to access location information for Glympse to follow someone.

Myth #4 Mobile phone trackers only let you see where people are

For those for whom keeping track of a mobile phone is just not enough information about what a loved one is up to comes software that funnels more than just location information to watchers. For instance, the gold standard software for parents is Teensafe.

Teensafe includes an app that parents install on their child’s phone and software through which parents can review their child’s communications. Parents can read a child’s emails and text messages, view logs of incoming and outgoing calls, and monitor WhatsApp chat sessions.

Employers and lovers distrustful of their partners can take mobile phone spying to a higher level with mSpy. Employers use the app on company phones to ensure their use stays within company policy. And lovers invest in mSpy because it’s so intrusive. mSpy does not send a confirmation email to someone to receive her permission to track her mobile phone.

mSpy expands Teensafe’s toolkit to include viewing the photos and videos on target mobile phones. Users can also remotely take control of target mobile phones. The application also enables users to be able to read text messages from target phones that Skype, Viber, SnapChat, Tinder (the dating app) and other social media apps generate through their communications.

FlexiSPY increases the stakes in mobile phone monitoring even further by enabling would-be spies to listen in and record phone calls, listen in on the phone’s surroundings without the phone being in use, and providing the ability to capture passcodes and passwords contained on the phone.

And if you are not handy with technology, all you have to do is connect the target phone to a computer. Then, call FlexiSPY tech support on the target phone. They have a remote installation service through which they can place their software so deep in the device it will be undetectable.

Key Takeaways:

  • Teensafe tracks a person’s location and monitors their communications;
  • mSpy is not permission-based and can take control of a remote mobile phone;
  • FlexiSpy ups the ante by enabling you to also listen in and record the phone calls of others.

Mobile phone Tracking Considerations

While parents monitoring their children is socially and legally acceptable in the United States and in the United Kingdom, tampering with someone else’s mobile phone without their express permission may be construed as a crime. That includes monitoring your spouse or girlfriend without their knowledge and perhaps causing them some distress through or because of the monitoring.

From infancy on, we are all spies; the shame is not this but that the secrets to be discovered are so paltry and few.” – John Updike, Novelist.

The law also applies to companies that do not make it contractually clear to employees the organisation is monitoring their company phones. Any proof the organisation finds through phone surveillance that an ill-informed employee has broken company policy cannot be used against the worker.

Nevertheless apps and services abound that enable the curious, the worried and the jealous to monitor the location of people they care something about. Though the apps are easy to install, many of them do require users acknowledge some level of permission to track them.

Additionally, apps and services are available that permit you to track people and peer into their online lives like a real spy. They are not permission-based and enable users to read text messages, listen in and record phone calls, and even capture passwords and passcodes.

Just make sure you don’t get punched in the face if you’re caught.