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How Do Spy Apps Track a Phone’s Physical Location?

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One of the top features of any cell phone spy app is the ability to track the location of someone else’s phone. This feature allows you to see the phone’s current location, past location history, and setup geo-fencing alerts.

But how do spy apps track phone’s physical location?

Phone Location Tracking Methods

Here are the three most common methods a phone use to pinpoint it’s physical location. The best spy software piggybacks off of these processes and securely sends this information to the spy software server.

Cell Tower Triangulation (Trilateration)

Cell phones use a process called cell tower triangulation to determine their exact location on a map. Triangulation involves measuring the distance from the mobile device to 3 or more cell phone towers using radio signals.

By measuring the time delay that a signal takes to return back to the towers from the phone an accurate location of the phone can be determined.

Apps, like Google Maps, can then use this data to show your location on a map. This method can be used to track someone’s location with phone their number.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

Global Positioning System (GPS) determines a device’s position using satellites. It does not require internet service and works worldwide.

GPS data is used by both Android Location Services and Apple Location Services. Third-party apps using APIs from these platforms can also access this information when you use those apps. You can refuse the permissions for most of these apps individually when you open them, or in the app settings. You can also disable your device location in the settings.

If your location data is turned off, your provider can make that information available upon request. This may be done if your device is lost or stolen, or if you call an emergency number.

Nearby Wi-Fi Networks

Most geographic regions are now blanketed in Wi-Fi networks. By using a device’s internal Wi-Fi antenna phone manufacturers can measure signal strength and proximity to known Wi-Fi locations. Through this they can determine an accurate physical location of the device.

Hybrid Solution

The best solution of all is to use all three of these methods to determine a phone’s location. By using GPS, Cell ID and LAC, and nearby Wi-Fi networks, a phone can pinpoint it’s location to within a few meters.

This can be accomplished in a matter of seconds.

Tracking Android Devices

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Android phone spy apps access both Cell ID (CID) and Location Area Code (LAC) logs to track the device’s physical location and location history.

Every cell phone tower has a unique CID. Cell phones constantly emit signals to identify and connect to nearby towers. Every connection goes into a log on the phone. Accessing these logs allows a tracking app to determine the current location of an Android device.

These logs can also be used to show the location history of the device.

Here’s how it works:

  1. the software retrieves the target device’s current Cell ID and Location Area Code (LAC)
  2. these two values are resolved into longitude and latitude using the Google Maps API.
  3. the latitude and longitude values are then transformed into a physical address
  4. the spy software then sends this information to a server via SMS text

Tracking iOS Devices

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A spy app can access an iOS device’s location data via Apple’s iCloud API using the CLLocationManager function. The user’s iCloud account and can be accessed with just the Apple ID (email address) and password.

This method works because Apple assumes only the user would have access to these login credentials, Therefore there is no reason to hide the data.

The iOS operating system uses a mix of GPS, cell ID, and Wi-Fi to determine a device’s location.

GPS data transfer rates are very low. This signal alone would be too slow to use for driving directions and other real-time location needs. So Apple uses a hybrid of GPS, Cell ID, and nearby Wi-Fi access points to determine a device’s location.

Apple’s iOS software is more secure than Android, but it is still possible to see the historical location data of an iPhone. This is even possible without jailbreaking the phone. Location data is stored under “Significant Locations” in phone’s menu system.

Follow these steps to see your iOS device’s location history:

  1. Tap the “Settings” app.
  2. Tap Privacy at the bottom
  3. Tap Location Services
  4. Scroll down and tap “System Services”
  5. Then tap “Significant Locations”

You’ll now be able to see your phone’s recent location history.

Essentially spy software just uses the phone’s operating system location functions and passes that information to their server to be viewed.

About the Author

Jason has over 25 years in the information and internet security industry. He is passionate about smartphones, gadgets, and technology. He also got a solid background in programming and software.  This includes Python, C++, app development and more.

jason thompson