You’ve seen it in the movies and on American television shows such as “24”. Jack Bauer puts a trace on a mobile number and in minutes they have the suspect’s exact position displayed on a hi-tech phone map. It all sounds like Hollywood fiction or a secret service spying fantasy, but you may be surprised to learn that not only does such technology exist, it is also now available for anyone to use in mainland Great Britain!
Mobile phone tracking was quietly launched in Who Called Me from This Phone Number? mainland Great Britain during 2003. Currently it works on T-Mobile, Vodafone, Orange and O2 standard GSM networks and that includes Pay As You Go phones, but other networks such as 3 and Virgin will follow soon, along with support for 3G networks. Surprisingly no extra hardware is required and it will work on any standard handset – even older models – providing you have the permission of the person you want to track. You don’t even have to use the internet, although many tracking services require you to register and view the location maps online.
The technology behind this new tracking service is surprisingly simple. All mobile phones work by being constantly in touch with the nearest phone mast to maintain good reception. You can sometimes even hear these signals as funny chirruping/clicking sounds if you place a mobile phone close to a loudspeaker or radio. What mobile tracking does is measure the distance the signal travels from the phone to the phone mast. A bit like counting how long it takes to hear a clap of thunder, after a flash of lighting, to calculate how far away a storm is, only in this case it’s a lot more sophisticated as it uses more than one mast to triangulate the position. The one drawback is the phone has to be switched on, so it won’t work on a lost mobile after the battery has run down!
GSM mobile phone tracking is cheaper, but less accurate than GPS satellite tracking which has been used for many years by the road haulage industry and in car Sat Navigators. Unlike GPS, GSM won’t show you what street the mobile is on. What it will do though is show you a radius of where it is likely to be. The accuracy will vary on a number of factors, such as the landscape (i.e. is it flat or hilly), how many phone masts are nearby (towns are much better than the countryside in this respect for network coverage) and even the weather will affect the results slightly, but the best accuracy is usually up to 50 to 100 metres. Obviously this is enough to find a person or stolen vehicle, but not always a lost phone.