How Does Mobile Tracking Work?
Mobile tracking at its core relies on what is called “Network-Based Tracking”. This refers to the non-obtrusive collection of data from a service provider’s network and use of data analytics to determine the location of individual phones (identified by their IMSI, IMEI, or similar identifier). Locations are determined utilizing the passive network communications exchanged between phones and base stations to assign a general area for each phone based on the known locations of base stations. Advanced systems such as Septier’s further refine this data by analyzing the relative signal strength and antenna patterns of the received signal. This data can be combined with phone ownership data to track the movement of specific individuals, or with geolocation data to track any phones entering a certain area. This approach has been employed as far back as 1996 and has been publicly reported to be able to pinpoint a location to within 50 meters in an urban area with sufficient base station density.
Such a system usually requires the pre-installation of monitoring equipment in the service provider’s network infrastructure. Since the 9/11 Patriot Act and Enhanced 9-1-1 Act in the USA, which both required North American service providers to comply with the installations of infrastructure, the number of countries which have employed similar legislation has skyrocketed, leading to a corresponding rise in the number of such systems installed. The reasoning may be to provide location-based emergency services, support for anti-terrorism and law enforcement, or as has become recently common to enforce quarantine measures and collect data for public healthcare analytics, however, the end result is that every year more service providers around the world are installing the needed infrastructure to provide Network-Based Tracking data, however, there are also some solutions that can be employed in emergency situations and bypass this requirement.
In recent years, as phones have become more complicated and begun to collect additional signals that can be used to pinpoint their location (such as GPS and WIFI signals) a new approach known as “Handset-Based Tracking” begun to emerge. Handset-Based Tracking commonly requires the pre-installation of software on the device, allowing access to the location data collected by the device. The advantage of such approaches is inside building or in similar locations that lie beyond the ability of traditional Network-Based Tracking. This approach is commonly employed by phone applications like Google Maps to pinpoint your location.
For some situations (such as tactical use) a greater level of accuracy is required; that is where “Hybrid Systems” come in. Hybrid Systems utilize a combination of the Network-Based and Handset-Based Tracking approaches, sometimes utilizing subversion of the device to collect the device’s location data, allowing pinpointing of the device to a great level of accuracy.