Whether it comes to transactions on the dark web, missing people, or people the police want to talk to, cellphones are incredibly useful tools for the authorities. And while they seem to be just as convenient for those trying to hide from the authorities, the truth is they can cause a lot of trouble.
If you’ve ever watched a crime movie, you’ve probably noticed the two main things to avoid when running from the police. First, it’s cards, both credit and debit. Second, it’s mobile phones. And believe it or not, cell tracking is so common these days that even random people can do it.
Now, how does the police track mobile phones?
Understanding how cellphones run
Understanding how your phone can be tracked starts with understanding how your phone works. This concept is highly related to the mobile purpose of these phones. So, what makes a phone mobile?
No matter where you are, there will be service areas around you. This means plenty of cellphone towers will maintain some sort of communication with all the phones in the area. Even if you can’t see any towers around you, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Waves travel long distances too.
Now, when a mobile phone is turned on, its signal is picked up by a few wireless towers in the area. These towers are referred to as cells. When the user tries to make a call or receive one, the network analyzes its position in order to figure out which tower is better for a perfect service.
In other words, this decision is made automatically based on the location of the phone. This coverage network has multiple towers that overlap each other. You don’t even need to make or receive a call. Turning the phone on is more than enough to get located immediately.
On the same note, phones can’t be tracked through this method when they’re turned off.
Triangulation is the most common option
Most commonly, the police and authorities rely on the so-called triangulation method to track phones. It’s quite accurate and doesn’t require too much data from the respective phone.
This option is highly related to how cellphones work. Their functionality is based on the nearby network of cell towers and that’s exactly what indicates your position.
Towers will analyze their distance from the phone before deciding which one is likely to provide better functionality. In other words, the authorities will have your distance from a few different towers. Overlapping this data will give your exact location, simple as that.
Normally, a couple of towers would be more than enough to give a pretty accurate result. When there are three or more towers, your location is analyzed in a 3D plane.
Now, you can find software that allows you to search for mobile phones yourself. While they work on similar principles, they're not incredibly accurate. Tools used by the authorities are clearly more advanced than software available to regular users.
Even so, the exact location could be a bit tricky, especially in crowded or busy areas. Trying to find a missing person in a rural area is easier than trying to find an individual in a building in Manhattan.
GPS in modern phones
Triangulation is quite reliable with the software and tools the police may use. But on the other hand, modern phones, such as smartphones, can be tracked with other technologies as well, such as the GPS system.
Based on some laws in the USA, wireless service providers must be able to identify phones within a 328 foot range. Triangulation worked at times, but there were also a bunch of exceptions. In order to achieve such a high degree of accuracy, many manufacturers have started using the GPS technology.
Modern phones rely on the GPS you normally use as a satnav on your phone. From many points of view, it works like triangulation. However, instead of relying on a few towers in the area, it relies on a bunch of satellites, which means it’s much more accurate. Your location can be incredibly accurate.
The GPS often runs in the background. Sure, most manufacturers allow you to turn the location on or off, but this is often irrelevant. The GPS often runs as an invisible app in the background, so the wireless service provider also knows where you are.
This is one of the reasons wherefore you’ll see people using the so-called burner phones these days. While they’re still very easy to locate with classic triangulation, they’re too old to implement the GPS concept.
Bottom line, these are the most common ways for the police to intercept people, whether they’re wanted for crime or just missing. A phone that’s turned on can be tracked straight away, whether modern or not. However, for a phone to be tracked, the authorities need to know the number or the IMEI.