Gone are the days of planting a GPS ‘tracker’ on a target to track their location. These days all someone needs is access to their victim’s cell phone. Once they have access to this device, they’ll be able to constantly track wherever you are in the world.
For hackers, jealous partners or snooping bosses, that’s a dream come true. Everyone has a cell phone and we all carry them wherever we go.
In this article we’re going to look at some of the different methods used by hackers for GPS tracking using a victim’s cell phone. We’ll talk about how these methods are implemented and what you can do to detect if it’s happening to you.
1. GPS tracking apps
This method relies on the use of apps known as ‘tracking apps’. These are apps usually marketed towards parents who want to monitor their family’s whereabouts. Although these apps are targeted at parents, it’s common knowledge that they are often abused by hackers for the purpose of tracking their victim.
This method is especially popular with spouses, family members and such, as this is a relatively easy way to track someone’s GPS location – requiring nothing more than installing an app, usually from the official app stores of the respective device.
How to detect
This is pretty simple. You just need to check your phone for apps that you don’t recognize. These apps can often be hidden deep in app folders, so make sure you check everywhere. If you find one, simply delete it the same as you would any other app.
2. Abuse of legitimate apps to track your GPS location
Sometimes legitimate apps can be abused to share your location with a 3rd party. Apps like Google Maps or Apple’s Find My have features that allow the location of the device to be shared to another person, This can be setup on the victim’s phone if the ‘hacker’ is able to get hold of it for a short time.
Again, this is an extremely easy method and doesn’t require installing an app onto the device. You can read more about this type of hack here.
How to detect
You can check if location sharing is turned on in either of these apps as follows:
How to stop sharing your location in Google Maps:
- On your device, open the Google Maps app.
- Tap the Account Circle in the top right.
- Tap Location sharing.
- Remove any accounts you are sharing your location with.
How to stop sharing your location in Find My:
- On your device, open the Find My app.
- Tap Me.
- Turn off Share My Location.
3. Apps with access to your location
Most apps that use your location data do so for a legitimate reason. However, it’s a good exercise to check all apps on your phone that have permission to use your location, as you never know if the app is being abused by someone to track your GPS location.
If you find any apps using your location that you don’t recognize or you’d prefer not to share your location with then you can easily revoke the permission.
How to detect
Or, to check your phone manually, please follow these steps:
To check which apps can access your location on iPhone:
- Navigate to Settings > Privacy > Location Services.
- Scroll through the list of all the apps on your iPhone and tap them to view and change their permissions.
To check which apps can access your location on Android:
- Navigate to Settings > Apps > App Permissions
- Tap Location
- Scroll through the list of all the apps on your Android and turn off location for any desired apps.
4. Significant locations (iOS) & Google Timeline (Android)
These relatively unknown features on both iOS and Android automatically keep track of your most visited locations and put them onto a map. This is a built-in feature of both phone systems but can be turned off. These features are designed to improve navigation functions such as predictive traffic routing. However, they could be abused by someone wanting to see a history of your GPS location, if they are able to get hold of your phone or gain access to your Google account.
How to detect
iOS: Significant Locations is a feature built into the iOS system. To turn this off do the following:
- Go to the Settings app
- Navigate to Privacy > Location Services > System Services
- Scroll and tap ‘Significant locations’
- Enter your passcode or use Touch/Face ID
Once you are inside significant locations you can view all the stored locations and can turn off the feature if you wish.
Android: Google Timeline is a feature managed by the Google Maps app and this is where you will find some of the functionality for it. Here’s how to view the location data Google has collected:
- Open Google maps
- Tap your profile picture in the top right corner
- Tap ‘Your Timeline’
If you want to ‘Pause’ location history (essentially this is turning off location collection) then just visit this link and click the settings cog .
From here click ‘Pause Location History’ then click the slider, scroll to the bottom of the text in the popup and click “Pause”.
5. Photo Metadata
Most people don’t know that the photos they take on their phone contain information known as ‘Metadata’. This not only includes data about the device they used but also other details such as the time, date and location of the photo.
If you regularly share photos with other people or post them online then you may be unknowingly sharing the exact location these photos were taken. It’s a scary thought that you could potentially be giving away more information that you intended, for example the location of your home.
How to detect
iOS: Apple devices have a simple option to turn off location sharing when sharing photos via iMessage, SMS or email.
- When sharing a photo via the iOS Photos app, click ‘Options’ at the top of the page.
- Here you’ll see various settings including location.
- Simply tap the slider next to location to exclude the location data from the photo being shared.
Android: Unfortunately, Android doesn’t make it quite as easy to exclude location metadata from photos that you share.
However, if you are concerned about sharing metadata when you send a photo, use WhatsApp as this will automatically remove the metadata from any image sent.
Spyware is a more extreme method of hacking, which involves installing 3rd party software onto someone’s device in order to track and collect their information, including GPS location.
Companies such as mSpy and FlexiSpy have the ability to remotely send GPS location data back to a hacker along with collecting a host of other data such as text messages, browser history, online account passwords, online banking details, etc. Whatsmore, these apps cost as little as $30 per month and can be completely hidden from the victim.
How to detect
To detect this spyware, you will need a security tool that you can use to scan your device for signs of hacking.
Hopefully this article was helpful if you are worried about GPS tracking via your cell phone. Whilst it can seem scary just how easy it can be for someone to use your smartphone against you, we hope this article has helped educate you on some of the tactics being used today and the best ways to keep your location private.