Cell Phone Tracking by Non-State Actors

This is interesting:

Adding credence to the theory that Brooklyn landlord Menachem Stark was kidnapped and murdered by professionals, a law enforcement source tells the Post that the NYPD found a cell phone attached to the bottom of his car, which could have been used to track his movements.

Presumably the criminals installed one of those “track your children” apps that transmits the phone’s GPS data to some database somewhere.

Posted on January 16, 2014 at 7:29 AM30 Comments


WhoAmI January 16, 2014 8:27 AM

I do not have much experience with attaching mobile phones to any bottoms ;-), but such a phone would have to be able to “see” the sky with its GPS receiver in order to get the GPS signal, right? So how would it work at the bottom of a car?

Anon January 16, 2014 8:31 AM

@WhoAmI GPS data is only one data source for this use case. Wifi access points are also used for geo-location.

Andrew January 16, 2014 8:42 AM

That’s interesting…
My experience with phone GPS is that unless attached to the car’s electrical system, most GPS apps drain the battery pretty quickly. And I hear similar things about the dedicated GPS navigators.

wumpus January 16, 2014 8:51 AM

@Andrew, a quick google lead me to a page where monoprice was selling a 5000mAh battery “chargers/ext battery packs” for $30. I guess it depends on how fast they discharge and how much room under the car you need to hide your kludge of a battery system.

I also have to wonder why it would take “professional criminals” to take something off the shelf and track someone. It is certainly possible that the killers happened to be parents and knew about the “track your child” apps. The cops may just be more inclined to think about sophisticated vs. unsophisticated criminals, and discount the issue that at least one set of parents (the former landlord had at least one conviction of an underage sex crime) had a motive (the papers make it sound like entire neighborhoods had a motive in this case).

Peter Galbavy January 16, 2014 8:55 AM

Samsung Android phone, and now newer Android phones in general will come with a “find my phone” app. You don’t need a full stream of GPS data just an occasional check via the web site. I have played with the Samsung and Google Play portals and both find my devices quicky and with good accuracy within seconds (as long as they are powered, obviously) and in buildings where GPS will not work. WiFi AP mapping is pretty accurate in cities now.

Tom January 16, 2014 9:01 AM

@Peter true, but even with all the power options dialled down, the battery on my galaxy s3 still only lasts 18 hours at most. The 5000mAh external pack someone suggested would boost that to around 40 hours, I guess (the internal battery is 2100mAh).

It’s still not exactly a long-term solution.

Peter Galbavy January 16, 2014 9:04 AM

@tom – that’s with all the bells and whistles. My Note 2 has appalling battery life with normal features on but you turn off master sync and remove otherwise chatty apps and given the battery stats reporting (not the built in one) I think it would last 3 or 4 days. Now find an older phone with a slower CPU etc. and you should get a week. And this is just plain new tech – I am sure with a little work (and an external battery pack) this could hit Nokia dumb phone levels pretty quick.

Peter A. January 16, 2014 9:07 AM

Some mobile phone operators over here offer a “where’s my kid” service. When enabled, the user of the “parent” phone can query the location of “kid” phones by sending a specific SMS message to a special number. The service uses cell-tower location information, so it works for any “dumb” phone as long as it is in range and the function does not consume any more battery than an idle phone would.

I have no idea if US providers offer such service, and if the criminals could have possibly used it, but it’s unlikely – they would have been easily traced using the phone company’s location records.

Chelloveck January 16, 2014 9:16 AM

It’s not exactly difficult to find 12V somewhere under a car. For someone who knows what he’s doing I can’t imagine that it takes much more time to wire a phone into the electrical system than it does to simply attach it.

pac-man ghosts January 16, 2014 9:23 AM

They don’t need a long-term solution or constant tracking. They only need to be able to check where the target is and then hone in on it when it’s in a suitable location during those 18 hours or whatever.

Because they probably already have a car if they’re planning to kidnap and kill someone, they just don’t have the resources/need for a seventies cop show armada of people and cars taking turns on trailing the target unnoticed.

The deceased sounds like a really swell guy, nice to see someone rewarding him when society fails. I guess he didn’t have any surviving family?

paranoia destroys ya January 16, 2014 9:23 AM

A solution to the limited time for having battery power is to wire a spare cigarette lighter outlet off the car battery and plug the phone charger into it. I’ve gotten them at electronic and auto parts stores.

BlackAngel January 16, 2014 10:19 AM

Not much to say — the ability for the everyday consumer to spy is exceeding. You can buy video camera watches and other devices for hundred a hundred dollars from Chinese sites. Supplement with high storage sticks. You can easily create multiple angles of convert surveillance around a person’s house, work area, anything.

There are a lot of ways to track vehicles. Some of the better do involve cell phones because you can pretty much ensure coverage and long distance communication. Many other ways may just mean a gps receiver that records data. Good choke point there: block gps reception around your car. (And watch craziness ensue, perhaps, as you drive about.)

Thieves could hook up cameras behind customers at pos systems to grab credit card numbers and pin codes.

And they could even have such devices so they never have to touch them once dropped. Just have a little command and control server running bluetooth or whatever, and upload the videos as one pleases… while one just pushes a button on one’s phone and stands in line waiting. Or sits at a local bar or coffee cafe frequented by government employees. Or google employees.

Anything can be wired, and cheaply, with a lot of the best stuff available to the consumer. We live in a surveillance age, where everyone wants to record what they see and hear. The demand is bustling, so the tech is getting ever better, and the costs remain competitive.

Fazal Majid January 16, 2014 10:20 AM

Back in 1996 or so I attended a Telecoms conference in London, and one of the speakers was describing a case where a drug-dealing gang, in Florida IIRC, became aware that they had a mole in their ranks.

They hired some programmers and hardware guys to build an interception rig that would capture all cell phone calls to the police in their area (I am guessing this was still in the days of unencrypted analog cell phones) until they found a call from the mole to the police, identified him from his voice and killed him. The cost came out to a few hundred thousand dollars, chump change to a criminal gang.

NobodySpecial January 16, 2014 10:37 AM

@Peter.A – it doesn’t matter if it’s easily traced. The bad guys (the criminals in this case not the NSA) buy a cheap PAYG phone to attach to the car and claim that this is the child’s phone.

As long as they don’t make the call to sprint from the phone at the Godfather’s house they are anonymous.

dog.catcher.fills.out.contact.report January 16, 2014 10:50 AM

This news report may be framed for propaganda purposes.

We know the government uses the mainstream media to control the population.

Suppose a story even contains actual events, but to make it to the national level of exposure it must be promoted by an official editorial decision at some point.

It appears that the government’s editorial policy is to promote the idea that the government is everywhere at all times. No aspect of human activity takes place in private anymore.

Consider these stories as part of that in-your-face campaign:

NYPD handing out fliers encouraging iPhone owners to download iOS 7

Ex-Cop Arrested for Fatal Shooting Over Texting at the Movies

Florida cop arrested for refusing to remove Guy Fawkes mask in Obamacare protest

Anonymous’ Secret Presence In The U.S. Army

It appears that the government wants to own all the extremes, such that it becomes impossible to think of a way to be opposite to government. They want to be present in your thoughts at all times. Psychological omnipresence.

This approach seems consistent with the COINTELPRO tactics employed in the 70s. Then it was official FBI policy to spread paranoia and the idea that “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox”, according to this interview http://www.democracynow.org/topics/cointelpro

We can thank Snowden for giving us the opportunity to see beyond the disinformation, to be able to comprehend the NSA as a subject in a larger context.

It now appears that psyop “cleaners” are working overtime to chip away at our ability to think clearly.

The story that NSA tracks everyone with cell phones is being conflated with the anxiety parents have for tracking their children and the use of tracking by criminals. This provides incremental cover for NSA.

herman January 16, 2014 11:10 AM

Many cars have a rear fuel tank pump, so there must be 12V power easily accessible over there. Also, a GPS signal will probably bounce nicely off the tarmac so a phone GPS may work fine down there.

Jason Axley January 16, 2014 12:26 PM

Let me get this straight: The bad guys

a) Knew which car was his
b) Knew at least one place he could be found in order to locate the vehicle and plant the tracker

Seems as if they already knew where he was if they could accomplish the above, so the impetus was likely not to find him; they already found him.

That seems to leave using the surveillance as a possible means for understanding his routine from a distance to perhaps pick a time and location more suitable for abduction with the least chance of observation and failure of the mission.

Joe P. January 16, 2014 2:16 PM

There are reports he was “dabbling in loan sharking”.

The Mafia doesn’t like competition.

Sparkygsx January 16, 2014 3:05 PM

@Jason Axley: most peoples’ cars are fairly easy to find, they are often parked near their house or on the driveway, unless he has a garage to park inside, and can also be found near a place of work or near shops at fairly predictable times.

Most cars don’t have all that many wires accessible from the outside, except maybe near the trailer connection if fitted. If you can find some accessible wiring, getting power shouldn’t be very difficult, even without knowing what each wires is used for.

Getting a reliable ground connection seems fairly easy; if you use some powerful magnets to attach the device, you could have some sharp spikes in the bottom to pierce any dirt, paint, or other coating to get a reliable ground.

Connecting to a power cable shouldn’t be that hard either, if you use some of those horrible clamp-on splice connectors. You don’t have to use a single wire; if you connect a diode in series with each wire, you could just clamp like 5 or 10 different wires, which a very high probability of getting at least one that would supply power most of the time. It doesn’t even matter if you happen to splice the CAN bus wires as well, because the diode will be reverse-biased, so it won’t disturb the communication. Circuits for bulb failure detection aren’t particularly sensitive, and if you limit the current to a fairly small value, you probably won’t trip any of those.

Andy January 17, 2014 2:14 AM

I do not have much experience with attaching mobile phones to any bottoms ;-), but such a phone would have to be able to “see” the sky with its GPS receiver in order to get the GPS signal, right? So how would it work at the bottom of a car?

…the reflections off the pavement would work work well enough if no line of sight can be realized. I have a Tracker in my bumper with neither Line of Sight to the sky nor pavement but I always get a good enough signal.

Andy January 17, 2014 2:26 AM

true, but even with all the power options dialled down, the battery on my galaxy s3 still only lasts 18 hours at most. The 5000mAh external pack someone suggested would boost that to around 40 hours, I guess (the internal battery is 2100mAh).
It’s still not exactly a long-term solution.

..if your dialed down phone only lasts 18 hrs with the screen off, its badly broken. The display is usually the number 1 power drain in phone usage by a human. I have put about 2 days runtimewith all networks enabled on my 2ndary HTC with an 1600mAh battery when I don’t use it. Now, root the device, dial down cpu tp 25%,use Tasker to put the phone into airplane mode and you have multilple days even without a battery pwck or wiring loom intercept. Use Tasker to wake up phone every 15 mins to broadcast GPS signal via SMS and thats all you need. Even more dedicated control could be done by control SMS which are received when phone is woken up from airplane mode hibernation.

What surprises me most is that the folks are called professionals, when clearly a pro would not leave a trace like this in a place the cops might check.

Andy January 17, 2014 2:31 AM

Oh, One more thing, depending on the car it would be stupid to hook up to some wirong loom. Modern cars monitor draw and resistance on many consumer parts very closely. If a bulb is out most recent highend cars will tell you exactly which one it is. I assume this might alsombe true for even more elemental consumers like the mentioned fuel pump. I am not even sure it would be accessible from the outside, but even if, the danger of a CAN Bus error code would be significant…

Pete S. January 17, 2014 12:06 PM

@WhoAmI Modern GPS receivers are remarkably sensitive, particularly the high-sensitivity ones.

I’ve had modest (~20m accuracy) signal with handheld GPS receivers in an interior, ground-floor room of a two-level house using GPS alone (that is, not using AGPS, wifi, cell towers, etc.).

The GPS receiver in my Nexus 7 tablet is even more sensitive (as it’s normally used indoors).

Being underneath a vehicle poses essentially no difficulties to modern GPS receivers.

Mexico January 17, 2014 2:29 PM

On Thu. 16 Jan 2014, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that warrantless cellphone tracking was not in violation of the Mexican Constitution and, furthermore, was mandatory for all cell carriers. Any LEO can submit via electronic means a request to the carrier, which has to provide geolocation information immediately.

The only restriction the court placed was that this capability be used for cases where the suspicion existed that a crime was being commited and/or personal risk was present. No details as to how the LEO would have to justify that these criteria were met.


SchneieronSecurityFan January 23, 2014 2:51 AM

Eveb before the iPhone was released, there were many mapping services that worked with a GSM phone. The user created an account and logged in – provided that the phone had GPS.

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