Cellular Tracking Used During COVID-19 Pandemic

As most in the technology community know, nation states have a suite of powerful tools that can be used to trace and monitor mobile phones. By and large, this comes up in discussions of privacy and legislation now and then, before fading out of the public eye once more. In the face of a global pandemic, however, governments are now using these tools in the way many have long feared – for social control. Here’s what’s happening on the ground.

The Current Situation

With COVID-19 sweeping the globe, its high level of contagiousness and rate of hospitalizations has left authorities scrambling to contain the spread. Unprecedented lockdowns have been put in place in an attempt to flatten the curve of new cases to give medical systems the capacity to respond. A key part of this effort is making sure that confirmed cases respect quarantine rules, and isolate themselves to avoid spreading the disease. Rules have also been put in place in several countries where all overseas arrivals must quarantine, regardless of symptoms or status.

“According to an epidemiological investigation you were near a corona patient on 06/03/20. You must immediately enter a home isolation by 20/03/20 to protect your relatives and the public. If you have fever, cough, etc. call A-101. Learn more at the link gov.il/corona” – An Israeli government text message. Source: @kann_news

In order to achieve this, Israel has begun to use the cellular devices to track suspected coronavirus cases. Using technology initially developed for counterterrorism purposes, it allows Israeli authorities to monitor the movements of individual citizens. If a citizen is detected as having spent 10 minutes or more within 2 meters of an infected person, they are sent a text message instructing them to self-isolate until a particular date. While a very effective method of tracing possible infection contacts, it also shows the incredible granularity of the data available to Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. With this capability, it would also be trivial to track phone users for enforcement purposes, too.

South Korea has also been actively tracing citizen’s mobile phones. Public health organisations have sent out texts detailing the recent movements of infected people, revealing intimate details of their citizens private lives. In one ridiculous case, a woman who had supposedly sustained serious injuries in a recent car accident was noted to be travelling to weddings and restaurants, leading to a grilling by TV reporters after she was identified by internet users.

Iran tried a more obvious method, asking users to install an app that promised to help diagnose coronavirus symptoms. It secretly leaked user’s live location data, and once this was public knowledge, it was promptly removed from the Play Store for breaking Google’s Terms of Service. This method is quite transparent to even a moderately technical user, and stands out for this reason. Of course, this does not mean that Iran doesn’t have more serious capabilities behind the scenes for cellular tracking, but it does raise questions as to why such a blatantly obvious approach would be attempted.

A screenshot of a Chinese website used to determine whether individuals have travelled to disease hotspots.

China has dealt with COVID-19 longer than anyone, and is heavily experienced with domestic surveillance technologies. An independent source has confirmed this technology is being used for access control to buildings. At entry points, individuals scan a QR code which takes them to a phone provider’s website. Entering their details, the user is shown a record of their location in the last 14 days. If they have avoided disease hot zones, they’re granted admittance to the facility.


The ideal democracy governs with the consent of the people. While people might object to the invasion of their privacy like this in normal circumstances, they may be willing to make this tradeoff in times of peril. It’s not clear that any of the above-mentioned countries attempted to obtain their citizens’ consent.

What stops governments from using these same domestic spying powers after the health crisis ends? Oftentimes, even if it’s not used in the mainstream, intelligence organisations that operate in the dark can get away with using such tools with impunity, even in violation of the country’s own laws. We know that many have been doing so for years. If anything, it serves as a useful reminder to the public that no mobile device can be considered secure from nosy government actors.

Looking Ahead

It’s important to remember that cellphone-based tracking systems come with a major caveat. Those who don’t wish to be tracked always have the option of simply not carrying a cellular device. There are currently no nation states that enforce the carrying of a mobile phone, and so the best way to dodge such tracking is to simply opt-out of the technology altogether. In this modern era, anyone making such a decision is giving up a lot, and it’s not one that can be made lightly. For some though, it’s no option at all – where phones are used for access control to buildings, it’s hard to avoid. In China, for instance, a corona-tracking function has been tied into Alipay, the most popular pay-by-phone app, and some cities require a green light on a cellphone to use public transportation.

World governments have shown their hand, making it clear to the public that they have an immensely powerful and threatening technology at their disposal, and that they’re willing to use it without consent. While it is currently being employed in service of public health, the potential ramifications are plain to see. It may prove difficult for citizens to win back civil liberties that have been suspended in the current quarantine. Time will tell.

43 thoughts on “Cellular Tracking Used During COVID-19 Pandemic

  1. Fun fact: here in the UK, our glorious NHS (All hail! All Hail! All Hail the NHS!) has determined that it will spend SIX weeks developing a tracking app instead of using one which Singapore currently has and managed to developed ONE week after the first case was detected there.

    1. It’s not an app. The cellular provider “knows” by default where you are to within a cell, and with extra measures they can measure your location based on the signal timing. It’s called AGPS.

      The trick is, it’s not normally accurate to within 2 meters but more like 200 meters unless you take some extraordinary measures, so the Israeli government has some special sauce installed in their cell towers to pull that off.

      1. AGPS don’t work that way…. AGPS is a way to deliver the ephemeris data (to a very fine degree) to the GPS receiver in your phone via cellular data link, so that is may lock on to GPS signals much more quickly than if it had to collect this information over the air via GPS almanac delivery. That being said, yes your cell phone company can query your phones GPS if there is an “emergency” — for the cellular provider to know your location via timing advance (possible but difficult) requires your phone to have view of the control channel of at least 3, (often timers more are needed) cells at the same time.. This is rarely the cases as the physics of RF is a bear.. (Walls, trees and hills are not RF transparent)

        1. AGPS is a slightly wrong term to use, because it’s usually referring to speeding up GPS – but it’s the same principle. The operator knows which cell you’re in because your phone has made the handshake, and they know your signal strength to adjacent and overlapping cells, so they can triangulate your position to within a few hundred feet in urban areas. It relays this information down to the phone – or to the authorities looking to locate your phone.

          The main inaccuracy comes from the fact that your phone signal is being attenuated in a random ways by building and objects including yourself. A more accurate way is to measure the signal propagation delay, but the cell towers aren’t that well in sync that they could measure the nanosecond scale differences you’d need to locate a person within 2 meters.

          To pull that off, you need some special hardware, like satellite tracking or an extensive and tight radio surveillance grid.

          1. It’s not just one thing. Israel has public WiFi everywhere. Thousands of access points across every city. Even on buses. Everyone is constantly announcing ourselves & our movements all the time polling for known APs, Bluetooth devices and all nearest cell towers. It’s actually extremely easy for a state actor to track everyone & corporations have been doing for years. even with the “counter measures” phone makers started using by spoofing your Mac address unless & until you connect, that can so easily be beaten but isn’t usually necessary since your device will most likely deanonymize itself proactively & voluntarily trying to connect to them. Personally, I don’t mind because I have nothing to hide or lose & all to gain. Im aware & consciously opt-in in exchange for convenience.
            I’ve even used Google location data as exculpatory evidence in court. It literally saved my @$$

    1. Indeed. We really need actual technological defenses against this stuff, because governments have repeatedly proven they’ll use this sort of data if it’s available whether people are okay with it or not.

  2. “Rules have also been put in place in several countries where all overseas arrivals must quarantine, regardless of symptoms or status.”

    At least one part of the US does this – the state of Hawaii. ALL arrivals, regardless of whether they’re returning locals, or tourists, or businessfolks must (under penalty of fine or arrest: https://www.newsweek.com/florida-man-breaks-hawaii-coronavirus-quarantine-arrested-kauai-police-1495672 ) must self-quarantine for 2 weeks immediately upon arrival.

    1. Exactly the maxim that comes to mind–some cliches are overused for a very good (and in this case, very bleak) reason. This kind of thing will not pass with the crisis. It will persist and become a nightmarish part of life eternally. Once it’s normalized (and our populace has gotten very good at normalizing anything and everything) then get ready to receive a text or visit from law enforcement if your phone was pinged in a bar nearby a known drug dealer, telling you to appear for drug testing and hand over your network of connections to investigate as well. Just one example. New tools find new uses. Don’t expect such a thing to remain limited to what’s specifically going on in this moment. Use your imagination.

      Sounds outlandish, but so would any of the grey-zone shenanigans that the state now does with personal devices now if we had listened to people predicting this twenty years ago. I know the emergency is difficult and frightening for good reason, but humankind has made it through times worse than this without dystopian panopticon violations of people’s personal lives. We have to grow a spine and be resolute; terrible events will happen a few times each century, and opportunistic vultures (along with the well-intentioned naive) will absolutely step in and try to take advantage of it. We can’t let them.

      We live in a universe of many possibilities, and it’s our duty to not fall for the false destiny of creeping technological surveillance and find better ways to change and innovate and move into a more equitable and free future. We can make a difference–for the sake of our future, and for the future of our children and all future generations. The weight of those not yet born should always outweigh the trials and troubles we face in the immediate present.

    2. “There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.”

      ― Philip K. Dick

  3. Sure we could build our own, but for them to be used by the NHS and therefore patients, they have to approved models. I am guessing that you have already built one and had it approved or are you just the troll of ventilators?

  4. Companies like Google, FB, Amazon etc. have so much data on each and every one of us. Not just our location data, but they know the things we buy when we shop with our credit cards as well. I have been thinking that a look into that great wealth of data, if for no one else but those who have died from this disease, might give some insight into what causes some to be so sick while others don’t have symptoms at all. Looking beyond what other medical problems they had and into their lifestyle. I know it is crazy thinking but the data is there and the computers are powerful enough to sift through it. What if something crazy is the culprit, could it be that those who get horribly ill have a common dietary regime… Could eating yogurt or a particular type of cheese have an effect on your chances….. Far fetched, yes… but it might be that eating sterno could help you survive.

        1. Just about 95% of Android phones out there, or the apps people rely on like banking and online payments. Mine included.

          Google with the tracking is kinda like Microsoft with IE – it’s bundled to the operating system so deep that you can’t get it out without breaking the thing. I can’t use NFC payments because it’s tied to Google Pay, which is tied to other Google software, which is tied to… tracking software.

        2. microG? If it matters that much, I’d sooner advise anyone to go with zeroG. The hard part is doubling down and deciding to not rely on anything that will break. Nevertheless, everyone decides which thing matters most.

        3. I’m lazy, so I just got an MVNO that charges extra for data usage, keep that feature turned off 99.999% of the time, and leave the phone at home if I’m doing something shady. Oh, yes, and it’s not got Google Play connected so anything going onto it needs to be sideloaded. Seems to work pretty well.

    1. so they will still be able to pinpoint you when you use your phone, unless you plan to drive to some random location to use your phone they will still be able to tell where you use your phone. maybe it would be best to throw it in the trash and get two cans and a string.

        1. Land-line time? Always thought smartphones were a bother anyway. I’m very Kaczynski about phones. They’re one of our most awful inventions. Unironically phonesarebad.

          1. Oh, you can use your phone in the socially sanctioned places, like the commute to work.

            You can’t close the Pandora’s box – the demons are already out – so you play along and do as you’re expected to. That may delay it somewhat, so you don’t have to start wearing a tracking bracelet or an implant of some sort for the next thing, when Google discovers that people are actually leaving their phones at home.

    2. And yet we connect to our ISPs through a modem they control, billed to an address they know. At what point in time did we have the illusion that we were in full control of our lives?

  5. Umm… we’ve been working on face shields for a good week. My makerspace has also been working on respirators but 3D printed ones aren’t sanitary due to the layer lines.

  6. you can be tracked easily w/o gps or cellular connectivity. if you have an app that queries the accessible bSSIDs in your vicinity, that app can just post this list to a webservice and get back a pretty good approximation of your current location. this db has been built fornyears by google, ookla and others using your gps enabled devices, and technically you are able to locate a wifi enabled smartphone/tablet. tbh android sucks here more as the cellular information is also available to apps (phycellid, sectorid along with the radio parameters) so you are just one REST call away from being localised. we just received a quote from ookla for a countrywide database of network coverage (cellular and wifi) in a european country. they sell this data.

  7. With mutual Bluetooth scanning by an app you can actually get down to the centimeter range to make it useful for possible infection tracking. Another benefit is the increased control of an individual over their information disseminated.
    With a strong Pseudonymization layer it can even be rolled out to give just the people concerned just the right amount of information to aid their decisions.
    This is what’s being developed in Europe as you read this post.

    1. Bluetooth strength reporting on BLE beacons isn’t very accurate. It’s more like “fairly close”, “not very close”, “almost lost signal” type accuracy. Timing based locating my be more accurate but would require both ends to be collaborating on it.

    2. I don’t think I have ever turned on Bluetooth on my phone, except for a time I used it to confirm a bluetooth speaker was functioning Not that I’m tech adverse, but I don’t have need for much of the tech May
      can’t live without. That time I turn on my phone’s BT, I was using my phone as a diagnostic tool. My phone’s WiFi is always off, unless I need to use it.

  8. Not clear that South Korea’s approach involves tracing their cell phones (accounts seem to talk about old fashioned tracing, using interviews, credit card statements, surveilance cameras).
    Publicizing location data the way they have done does not scale well, sort of like the
    Have you seen this child advertisement in voters pamphlets, etc. Might work when there are a very small number, but with thousands of cases in a city, it quickly just becomes noise and will be ignored.

  9. Sorry this doesn’t have any links, but the system keeps ignoring messages with links.

    There are a lot of hacking opportunities in this area, and better contact tracing is urgently needed if we want to resume more social contact before a vaccine is developed.

    Improved contact tracing efforts include:
    Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative
    COVID Watch
    Safe Paths (MIT)

    Several of these plan to use bluetooth to estimate/record proximity (without location data).

  10. Just face it – technology has imprisoned us in gilded cages and the best part is most people blindly handed over their freedom in their quest for convenience.
    However, their is hope. Technology has vastly improved the lives of some people who are able to use the same technology for disabilities, communication etc.
    What we need now is to vastly improve our education systems so that people can critically think, question and hold those who would use technology against us to account.

    Start educating technological “wolves” rather than “sheep” so that they can stop feeding the “machine” and start using it for their own advantage. I think that’s how we can progress from the current “consumerism” towards a “technical” society.

    …then again, what government would want to have a population which constantly asks inconvenient questions about policies, rules, expenses, directorships, friends/family employed, business trips, family holidays etc?

  11. They are sneaking the app here in Australia onto our phones. They announced it – well not sneaking but they said they will put it there whether we like it or not.

    basically going track you without having to download an app. it will be through android and icrap bluetooth

  12. On the one hand, this whole situation has black mirror vibes, right? I think such news like tracking our phones can scare any conscious citizen (or paranoid like me). I consider such a prospect as extreme measure, because – just look at how ignorant some people are toward regulations and restrictions .. Some of them do not seem to understand what can happen in the future if we do not stay at home and give a damn about quarantine measures .
    On the other hand, such a strategy can rightfully be considered an invasion of privacy .. and this is a completely different conversation.
    Therefore, I do not think that now, when the government simply asks us to stay at home and limit social contacts, this is an infringement of our rights.

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