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Cell Phone Location Privacy

We all know that our cell phones constantly give our location away to our mobile network operators; that’s how they work. A group of researchers has figured out a way to fix that. “Pretty Good Phone Privacy” (PGPP) protects both user identity and user location using the existing cellular networks. It protects users from fake cell phone towers (IMSI-catchers) and surveillance by cell providers.

It’s a clever system. The players are the user, a traditional mobile network operator (MNO) like AT&T or Verizon, and a new mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). MVNOs aren’t new. They’re intermediaries like Cricket and Boost.

Here’s how it works:

  1. One-time setup: The user’s phone gets a new SIM from the MVNO. All MVNO SIMs are identical.
  2. Monthly: The user pays their bill to the MVNO (credit card or otherwise) and the phone gets anonymous authentication (using Chaum blind signatures) tokens for each time slice (e.g., hour) in the coming month.
  3. Ongoing: When the phone talks to a tower (run by the MNO), it sends a token for the current time slice. This is relayed to a MVNO backend server, which checks the Chaum blind signature of the token. If it’s valid, the MVNO tells the MNO that the user is authenticated, and the user receives a temporary random ID and an IP address. (Again, this is now MVNOs like Boost already work.)
  4. On demand: The user uses the phone normally.

The MNO doesn’t have to modify its system in any way. The PGPP MVNO implementation is in software. The user’s traffic is sent to the MVNO gateway and then out onto the Internet, potentially even using a VPN.

All connectivity is data connectivity in cell networks today. The user can choose to be data-only (e.g., use Signal for voice), or use the MVNO or a third party for VoIP service that will look just like normal telephony.

The group prototyped and tested everything with real phones in the lab. Their approach adds essentially zero latency, and doesn’t introduce any new bottlenecks, so it doesn’t have performance/scalability problems like most anonymity networks. The service could handle tens of millions of users on a single server, because it only has to do infrequent authentication, though for resilience you’d probably run more.

The paper is here.

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Finding the Location of Telegram Users

Security researcher Ahmed Hassan has shown that spoofing the Android’s “People Nearby” feature allows him to pinpoint the physical location of Telegram users:

Using readily available software and a rooted Android device, he’s able to spoof the location his device reports to Telegram servers. By using just three different locations and measuring the corresponding distance reported by People Nearby, he is able to pinpoint a user’s precise location.


A proof-of-concept video the researcher sent to Telegram showed how he could discern the address of a People Nearby user when he used a free GPS spoofing app to make his phone report just three different locations. He then drew a circle around each of the three locations with a radius of the distance reported by Telegram. The user’s precise location was where all three intersected.


Fixing the problem — or at least making it much harder to exploit it — wouldn’t be hard from a technical perspective. Rounding locations to the nearest mile and adding some random bits generally suffices. When the Tinder app had a similar disclosure vulnerability, developers used this kind of technique to fix it.

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On Executive Order 12333

Mark Jaycox has written a long article on the US Executive Order 12333: “No Oversight, No Limits, No Worries: A Primer on Presidential Spying and Executive Order 12,333“:

Abstract: Executive Order 12,333 (“EO 12333”) is a 1980s Executive Order signed by President Ronald Reagan that, among other things, establishes an overarching policy framework for the Executive Branch’s spying powers. Although electronic surveillance programs authorized by EO 12333 generally target foreign intelligence from foreign targets, its permissive targeting standards allow for the substantial collection of Americans’ communications containing little to no foreign intelligence value. This fact alone necessitates closer inspection.

This working draft conducts such an inspection by collecting and coalescing the various declassifications, disclosures, legislative investigations, and news reports concerning EO 12333 electronic surveillance programs in order to provide a better understanding of how the Executive Branch implements the order and the surveillance programs it authorizes. The Article pays particular attention to EO 12333’s designation of the National Security Agency as primarily responsible for conducting signals intelligence, which includes the installation of malware, the analysis of internet traffic traversing the telecommunications backbone, the hacking of U.S.-based companies like Yahoo and Google, and the analysis of Americans’ communications, contact lists, text messages, geolocation data, and other information.

After exploring the electronic surveillance programs authorized by EO 12333, this Article proposes reforms to the existing policy framework, including narrowing the aperture of authorized surveillance, increasing privacy standards for the retention of data, and requiring greater transparency and accountability.

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Collecting and Selling Mobile Phone Location Data

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a company called Anomaly Six LLC that has an SDK that’s used by “more than 500 mobile applications.” Through that SDK, the company collects location data from users, which it then sells.

Anomaly Six is a federal contractor that provides global-location-data products to branches of the U.S. government and private-sector clients. The company told The Wall Street Journal it restricts the sale of U.S. mobile phone movement data only to nongovernmental, private-sector clients.


Anomaly Six was founded by defense-contracting veterans who worked closely with government agencies for most of their careers and built a company to cater in part to national-security agencies, according to court records and interviews.

Just one of the many Internet companies spying on our every move for profit. And I’m sure they sell to the US government; it’s legal and why would they forgo those sales?

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The NSA on the Risks of Exposing Location Data

The NSA has issued an advisory on the risks of location data.

Mitigations reduce, but do not eliminate, location tracking risks in mobile devices. Most users rely on features disabled by such mitigations, making such safeguards impractical. Users should be aware of these risks and take action based on their specific situation and risk tolerance. When location exposure could be detrimental to a mission, users should prioritize mission risk and apply location tracking mitigations to the greatest extent possible. While the guidance in this document may be useful to a wide range of users, it is intended primarily for NSS/DoD system users.

The document provides a list of mitigation strategies, including turning things off:

If it is critical that location is not revealed for a particular mission, consider the following recommendations:

  • Determine a non-sensitive location where devices with wireless capabilities can be secured prior to the start of any activities. Ensure that the mission site cannot be predicted from this location.
  • Leave all devices with any wireless capabilities (including personal devices) at this non-sensitive location. Turning off the device may not be sufficient if a device has been compromised.
  • For mission transportation, use vehicles without built-in wireless communication capabilities, or turn off the capabilities, if possible.

Of course, turning off your wireless devices is itself a signal that something is going on. It’s hard to be clandestine in our always connected world.

News articles.