In this day and age, we have no secrets. The electronic conveniences we embrace as part of everyday life—transit passes, ATM cards, that handy cell phone app that can help you find the nearest Thai food—create a detailed daily map of where we go and what we do. With GPS tracking and various software programs, you can even find the location of a cell phone now.
This wasn't the case just a few years ago, says Amy Storey of CTIA-The Wireless Association, a membership organization for the wireless communications industry. Before 2008, she says, most apps were offered directly from carriers and consisted of things like wallpaper and ring tones, but now that many cell phones have GPS there are lots of ways to use your location to enhance your experience. From using phones to software, it is now easier than ever to track a cell phone.
Most cell phones now come enabled with GPS, making it very simple to locate them. You can try to track it for free, or you can go with several paid plans. Being able to do this is good news if you're trying to track someone else's phone (say, your kid's or your employee's) or need someone to find you by tracking your phone (maybe you're lost in the wilds of the mountains, or Manhattan). This can even come in handy for government agencies trying to nab criminals. But it can be bad news for those who put a premium on privacy because if you can track your cell phone, others can track it as well.
"If you are tempted to use cell phone tracking technology, you should ask yourself some important questions," says Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties group created in 1990 to interpret and apply laws relating to consumer use of digital technology. "One question [to ask yourself] is how long this data is retained. You're not the only person who will see it—it's created for you, but there are many opportunities for other people [such as the company that creates it and legal authorities] to see it."
If you’re trying to track a phone that is lost or stolen, knowing that others may be able to view the data is a risk you’re probably willing to take—you may not have a choice. However, if you do decide you want to track a cell phone that belongs to someone else, it's best to be up-front with the person. This is a particular interest for parents, since 20 percent of American kids now have cell phones, a number that's nearly doubled in the last few years alone. Talk with them about how you plan to use this so that they aren’t surprised when they find out someone has been tracking their cell phone. Once you’re ready to get started, you’ll find a range of free and low-cost tracking options available, as well as specific plans offered by cell phone carriers. Use these tips to track a phone.
- Buy a phone equipped with a GPS tracker. Buying a mobile phone with GPS tracking is probably the simplest option. This is easy, since most companies began incorporating GPS tracking technology after 2005 to comply with requirements of the Federal Communications Commission. This shift to using GPS, inspired in part by the events of September 11, 2001, was intended to help responders locate people accurately in an emergency. Today, about 80 percent of phones on the market have GPS tracking capabilities. (Some carriers and manufacturers rely on cell networks to instead of using GPS. With this method, they can use signals from the nearest cell towers to track cell phone location.) Just because your phone has GPS doesn't mean you can track it; carriers are not keen on freely sharing location information from cell phones with any old individual. But if you have GPS tracking on a cell phone, you're one step closer to successfully tracking it.
- Check with your service provider. Specific GPS plans exist, primarily intended for parents and employers, that can help you easily track a cell phone location from your own wireless phone or PC. If you aren’t able to do it with your mobile, you can also go online. These programs are Sprint/Nextel's Mobile Locator, Verizon's Family Locator and AT&T's Family Map. These services generally cost about $10-$15 per month, nothing to sneeze at when it's added to all the other costs of a plan. Using a program like this can provide peace of mind in the form of interactive, real-time location maps on your phone or online. If you use these plans, you can get arrival and departure updates by text or e-mail. You can also use maps with landmarks chosen by you and printable turn-by-turn directions to your family member's location. Many of these programs allow you to track someone’s cell phone with PC-to-phone messaging. This method is one of the most in depth ways to track phones.
- Buy and install software. If you don't want to cough up more money to your carrier for these services, or your carrier doesn't offer them or GPS, there are plenty of other ways (such as tracking software) to track a cell phone from your wireless device or online—and there are more methods cropping up every day. Keep in mind that this is usually not a free method. In most cases, using software requires the consent and participation of the phone owner (a good practice in general). These downloadable software programs and apps let you track a cell phone from your own phone, PDA or PC. You can download the software to your computer or phone. Most of these use some type of GPS tracking to locate the phone. Examples of these software programs include AccuTracking, GPSed Monitoring Service and MapQuest Find Me. Costs for these software programs generally range from $6-$18 a month, so it’s relatively inexpensive. Make sure you research the various brands before you purchase a product to make sure it’s compatible with your device.
- Use a free mapping program. Lots of free cell phone tracking services have been created that allow you to find friends and family—with their cooperation. One of the best known mapping programs is Google Latitude, which uses tower signals and other data to track the location to the phone or computer of approved contacts, even from a mobile phone that does not have GPS tracking. Other similar map-based locator apps (most of which rely on GPS) include Mologogo, Buddyway and Instamapper. These programs may be limited to certain types of phones or networks, so you'll have to experiment to see which ones are the best. But if you’re looking for a free option, this is one of your best bets.
- Use the IMEI number. If you need to trace a cell phone that's been misplaced or stolen, instead of using GPS or a software tracking program, you may be able to use the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number, a 16-digit code that is unique to your phone. To find the IMEI, dial *#06#, then record the number in a safe place so that you can track it later. This is another free option. Your carrier can help with this, too. If your phone is stolen, you should be able to call your carrier and have them track it and then disable it by using this information.
Before you start tracking a cell phone with GPS or a software program, you should consider the consequences. Whether you learn how to do this on your, or someone else’s phone, by accessing your phone’s location, you’re allowing others to access your phone’s whereabouts, too. You should therefore practice caution when using any type of tracker. Here’s what to look out for when tracking a phone.
- Learn more about cell phone privacy. When it comes to cell phones, our eagerness to use new GPS and location-based apps (to track a phone or just find the nearest restaurant) might mean we are sacrificing important rights. To find out more about the risks and solutions of this era, and issues surrounding cell phone tracking, read the Electronic Frontier Foundation's "On Locational Privacy and How to Avoid Losing It Forever". And check out CTIA's Be Smart website, which has tips for parents and educators on helping kids use phones responsibly and safely. It’s important for kids to understand the strings attached to having GPS on a cell phone.
Now you know how to track a cell phone. You can use software programs, GPS tracking or other free methods. So, whether you want to make sure your child arrives at soccer practice safely, are hoping to rally nearby friends for a spontaneous drink at the corner pub, or just need to find your phone that’s lost, you can find plenty of solutions through your cell carrier, software programs and online, including free programs. And with technology evolving as quickly as it does, you're guaranteed to have your choice of options when tracking a cell phone—in other words, you make the call!