January 27th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, onanism, phone stalking | 11 Comments »

Here’s a scary story. You can track anybody’s movements through their mobile phone, all you need is five minutes access to their phone. You receive two text messages, and send one in reply, then delete the evidence, and bob’s your uncle, your target would never know. On Radio 4 today I pointed this out to one of the companies that offer this service. Their response is, essentially, that this had not occurred to them as being a problem.

I don’t get angry easily, but to my mind, this is a sinister story, and the phone companies are failing to protect your privacy, by giving away your location to anybody on the flimsiest of “consent”: one text message.

If anybody wants to take it up, write about it in the press, please email me,, happy to help.

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11 Responses

  1. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 27, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    That links just gives me a clip saying “the audio of this program will be available from 3pm.” Cheers Auntie, it’s nearly four o’clock…


  2. j said,

    January 27, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    Working. Very. Scary.

  3. j said,

    January 27, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    Ha! You have SOOO got that guy on the run!

  4. Mark Gould said,

    January 27, 2006 at 6:56 pm

    Hmm. I can’t decide whether it was a good or bad thing that nobody pointed out to the tracker man that the system requiring parental consent for tracking a child’s phone is easily circumvented in an obvious fashion. I am convinced that the fact that he clearly hadn’t seen it for himself makes him a fool.

  5. Andy said,

    January 27, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    Some of the companies which offer that sort of service will send a text message to the phone one a week or so as a reminder. That does at least indicate that they understand the need to make sure that the user is aware of what is going on even if it’s still not exactly bulletproof.
    They’ve had a couple of years to make these things secure, looks like they need a few more. Maybe requiring a fixed time period in the region of weeks between signing up and the tracking becoming active, during that time text messages are sent to the phone at random intervals. Plus very clear marking on the bill that tracking is on.

    But then what do you expect from an industry that don’t seem to think that topless women count as adult content.

    On the plus side right now the accuracy of the location system isn’t stunning, with the US E911 requirments this is only going to get better in the future.

  6. Evil Kao Chiu said,

    January 30, 2006 at 9:23 am

    You’ve been promoted.

    According to the BBC link above, “Dr Ben Goldacre is the Guardian columnist and science writer and he tells us how it works.”

    Which makes it sound like you’re doing all their columns these days. Must be keeping you busy.

  7. Hatter said,

    January 31, 2006 at 10:59 am

    What’s disturbing is that there are people who think a topless woman is adult content. And that there are people who will actually try to defend the idiotic notion that it might cause a child some harm. Let’s see the science to back that one up.

  8. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 31, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    Apparently Disney mermaids cover up upstairs. Frankly I agree that boobies-on-demand should at least not be offered to mionrs, except of course for the very very minor in the usual way.

    I suppose Dr Ben Goldacre the Guardian columnist is so identified to distinguish him from “Dr” Ben Gold-Acher the unfrocked dentist whom I’m sure you’ve heard far too much about over the years. It’s not as if you know the man, much less are responsible for his malpracticices or leading a double life with a secret identity… at least as far as we know. 😉

  9. Andy said,

    January 31, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    Oh I agree that the pictures were hardly adult or harming. But when the phone company can’t tell you how to unsubscribe to their own preimum rate service then there is something very wrong with the system.

  10. Ian said,

    February 15, 2006 at 8:50 am

    A very similar report was broadcast yesterday on Swedish TVs Channel 4. The report was part of a wider discussion of privacy and proposals for a new bugging law. They compared the UK situation (with authorisation requirement) and the US version (only need a telephone number). The correspondent went online with a technical specialist to see what he could find out about his own location and that of a lOndon colleague. Why a tech specialist was needed to operate a browser was not explained. They then pointed out that the US system (and possibly the UK one?) used data leaked from telephony companies for cash.

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