Newly published work from a team of Californian scientists proves that our phones (and other gadgets equipped with Bluetooth connectivity technology) can increasingly be treated as wireless tools to track our location – and not by advertisers and large technology companies, which is no longer the case today, no secret.
“Using the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) protocol, mobile devices such as smartphones and smartwatches continuously transmit a signal that informs passive recipients of the device’s location. This is used by applications such as social tracking tools in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as solutions for finding lost devices,” the researchers explain.
As they state, these apps use cryptographic solutions to minimize the risk of the signal being used by potential attackers who want to track down the owner of a smartphone or smartwatch. However, their circumvention is possible and actively implemented by mapping the unique physical transmission layer imperfections in individual devices that arise at the stage of their production.
How to use Bluetooth to track smartphones?
First, the study shows that Bluetooth can be a very effective tool for tracking the location of users of electronic devices, provided that the smartphone or smartwatch is not near other devices.
According to experts, individual signal monitoring allows you to track the phone even from a distance of several hundred meters. If, on the other hand, the user is part of a group of other people who have smartphones with active Bluetooth, then the possibility of tracking him is considerably limited to a few or more meters – all because of “contamination”. along with other signals that prevent accurate mapping of a single device’s motion.
The study authors indicate that 40 to 47 percent may be susceptible to abuse with Bluetooth use. smartphones that contain imperfections that allow precise mapping of their individual signal.
The algorithm used in the study allowed the researchers to define two universal factors that are found in the Bluetooth signal emitted by the devices, and which are also dependent on the aforementioned production “imperfections”. enabling smartphone tracking have nothing to do with the age of the devices or the phone model.
What can make it difficult to track a smartphone via Bluetooth? Not only the “noise” resulting from the superposition of the signals emitted by many devices located simultaneously in the same place, but also, for example, the ambient temperature.
You don’t need too complex technology to track a Bluetooth-based device – the researchers point out that all you need is radio signal detection equipment that costs less than $200 and a level of technical knowledge. high enough to take advantage of it.
How big is a Bluetooth harassment problem?
Potentially very large. I wrote about the fact that this communication technology is already being used for malicious purposes when stalking with AirTags, produced by Apple. In recent days, the media has spread the news that this gadget was used by the perpetrator of the murder, who first located his partner accused of infidelity thanks to an AirTag, then, following an argument outside one of the pubs. , she killed him, hitting the man repeatedly with her car.
This is an extreme case, but nevertheless the problem of using Bluetooth devices to monitor people’s location is already well recognized – AirTags are a tool for domestic violence and violence in relationships, they are also used for harassment, which in itself is a form of violence and a crime.
The problem with Bluetooth-equipped tracking devices, however, is much broader – as evidenced by the discussed research paper.
Today, almost all of us use gadgets that connect to our phones or smartwatches via Bluetooth. In this way, we connect headphones, printers, portable fitness electronics or other peripherals, most often without realizing that Bluetooth can pose a risk to our privacy, and even – like the aforementioned murder case – for life.
We don’t usually think about the fact that our phone’s Bluetooth is active – we leave it on even when we’re not using any device, so that we can easily connect to it at any time.
IoT devices that connect and “talk” to each other to make our lives easier in the digital world are growing around us.Some of them use Wi-Fi wireless networks for connectivity, where it there is also a significant risk of using the signal to track us (however, it is already quite well mapped and described), while others are betting on Bluetooth, and it’s a safe bet that the future will be less connected – on the contrary, there will be more and more devices and applications for Bluetooth in our lives.
Not only bullies
In addition to domestic violence and harassment, there is another risk associated with the potential privacy invasion of smartphone users described in a study by a California team.
It’s about surveillance by law enforcement and governments. In democracies, we have become accustomed to thinking that the surveillance and tracking of citizens are borderline situations that are only allowed to occur with the consent of the court, in cases where it is a question of protect public and national security, or prevent crime, including terrorism. .
The reality, however, is different, which is clearly demonstrated by the scandal with Pegasus, widely described in our pages, which the Polish state has also used to monitor its citizens.
Today, state control should not be carried out through data access requests formally sent to technology companies, which have the right to refuse to disclose data in situations where it may pose a threat to human rights and democracy, for example when journalists want to be illegally monitored.
It is much easier to keep track of us using devices that we ourselves gladly put in our pockets every morning and take with us everywhere – not just in the bedroom.
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