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You won’t believe how easy it is for just about anyone to track your smartphone (updated)

Updated Feb 20th, 2014 2:50PM EST
How Smartphone Wi-Fi Tracking Works

It’s not just spy agencies that can track smartphone users… in fact, almost anybody can do it as long as they have the right equipment, a new Forbes report reveals. Many third parties already track smartphones and tablets by picking up their user data for various purposes, mostly commercial or ad-related. Advertisers and retail stores can record location data about users in order to either serve certain location-related ads, or to better customize store layouts to maximize in-store impulse purchases.

Latanya Sweeney, the new chief technology officer at the Federal Trade Commission, has detailed in a lengthy post the potential advantages and disadvantages of retail stores tracking users by picking up Wi-Fi data. Because each device has unique MAC addresses that is relayed while looking for and establishing wireless connections, those stores that track smartphones can analyze patterns to maximize profits.

“Your phone’s MAC address remains the same regardless of the network and transmits even without actually connecting to the Internet,” Sweeney wrote.

Such features can further be used to improve and personalize store experiences for shoppers, but not everybody will be thrilled by the idea of being constantly tracked. While retailers could use such tracking features to replace loyalty cards, thus offering buyers and incentive to allow their in-store location to be tracked, it may also lead to unwanted side effects.

In one example, Sweeney revealed how a store associated credit card data and other information with purchases, constructing profiles of its customers. Based on the purchases, the store could predict with some accuracy even pregnant customers.

“The store sells everything for new parents, from formula to toys, so the company sent coupons to people its analysts determined were likely to be expecting a child. One of these coupons arrived at the house of a man who prior to receiving the coupon did not know his teenage daughter was pregnant,” Sweeney wrote.

The exec also proposed several methods that could allow both retailers and interested customers to benefit from such tracking technology, as long as stores would disclose their data collection practices and offer opt-outs to their customers. Furthermore, on February 19th, “the FTC will host a public seminar related to commercial tracking using Wi-Fi addresses on mobile phones” to discuss these matters.

Of course, not all smartphone tracking is done for commercial purposes. Forbes further details how “an ordinary person could intercept cellphone calls and data, by, in effect, creating a desktop GSM cell phone tower.” While difficult for most people, there are companies that sell equipment that could help out with advanced tracking of mobile devices. A company in Las Vegas says that its device can help you “intercept, block, follow, track, record and listen to communications using unique triangulation and other advanced technology.” However, such products are available only to the U.S. Government and appropriate agencies, at least in theory.

Meanwhile, users who want to avoid being tracked can turn off the Wi-Fi of their devices. Alternatively, a better method may be installing apps that hide the MAC address while the Wi-Fi is on, which would make tracking from advertisers a lot more difficult. Additionally the Blackphone, whose main feature is supposed to be guarding the privacy of the owner, will be unveiled at MWC next week, so you’ll soon have yet another option for blocking third parties from tracking you.

In the following video, an expert explains how an ordinary person can intercept cellular data for a handset, after purchasing $1,500 worth of equipment.

UPDATE: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the retail chain that was able to accurately predict pregnancies used MAC-related data combined with other data to track customers, but that wasn’t the case, as the store developed a tracking method around credit card-related purchase habits.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.