For the past several months, reports have been circulating that police have been tracking the GPS location of a Montreal journalist’s iPhone after a judge signed off on a warrant to allow it. Since then, many headlines have been suggesting that the authorities not only have the ability to track an iPhone’s GPS, but that they had actually already done it.
The problem? The judge signed off on the warrant without realizing it’s not technically possible for the GPS to be tracked on an iPhone by design. There are plenty of other things the police can do when it comes to surveillance, but iPhone GPS tracking isn’t one of them without the user’s permission.
For an iPhone’s GPS to be tracked, the person holding the phone has to tell the device to go into its emergency mode by making a 911 phone call. According to Apple, it has specifically designed the software in the phone’s baseband — which is the processor that manages all functions in the device that require an antenna — to not allow the GPS to be activated for tracking remotely unless it is in this emergency mode. The emergency mode also cannot be turned on remotely, as the baseband’s software was specifically designed to not allow it. Without having that capability built into the software on either the baseband or in the operating system itself, the act is just not possible.
Of course, this functionality varies by handset, so non-iPhones could very well have the ability to be tracked remotely by GPS. However, when it comes the iPhone mentioned in many media reports, there is currently no known way to do it, according to Apple.
What is more likely to have happened in this case (and other similar ones) is cell tower triangulation, which is done on the network side and has been around for years. This essentially looks at the radio frequency signal strength being admitted from the cell phone and sent to various nearby towers, then police can narrow down an area of where a subject is located. This can be done with any cell phone, but the location of the user is seen in a much larger area to authorities and not the near pinpoint accuracy that a GPS would have provided if it were actually possible. The size of the area shown using cell tower triangulation would vary depending on the number of towers and the user’s proximity to them, whether that be a square mile, football field or few buildings.
This is also similar to what Telus told Maclean’s Magazine when asked in 2012 how location information can be provided to the police. “We are generally only able to provide cell site or triangulation data for these types of requests,” a spokesperson said.
That said, there are other ways that an iPhone can be monitored, but because of network limitations and vulnerabilites. For example, can an iPhone’s SMS text message be seen (meaning when it turns green, not blue indicating an iMessage)? Definitely, as text messaging is an archaic standard that is not secured or encrypted like iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp and other messaging platforms sent through data.
The same could be made for phone calls made through the network, as it is still using an old standard. A better solution is using Apple’s FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp and other encrypted options for audio or video calls that also use data instead of the old cell phone standard.
So can your iPhone’s location be tracked remotely by GPS without your knowledge? No, and the headlines saying otherwise are misleading. They most likely mean network triangulation, which is a very different technology.