The NY Times recently published an article, “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night,” detailing how easily someone could reverse engineer location data to identify someone and track them. While the article is correct to point out that there are few (and in some case no) safeguards regarding who can use the location data, the revelations are by no means new.
In 2009 Zeit Magazine in Germany worked with the politician Malte Spitz to demonstrate how phone records could be used to track and trace someone—no apps required. Certainly no permissions.
The triangulation and “handing off” that cell towers do allows anyone with that data to reconstruct, as Zeit did here, the life and movement of any individual with a phone. It’s fascinating viewing. Link: https://www.zeit.de/datenschutz/malte-spitz-data-retention
As a citizen and phone user, I found Zeit’s trace map disconcerting. As a novelist, I was intrigued to discover what happened during the times for which there’s no data. Where was he? What was he doing? The record is incomplete.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that Mr. Spitz was doing anything nefarious, but as my second Imogen Trager thriller, Dark Network, began to take shape in late 2016, I saw how I could have Imogen track her quarry via their phones—and her genius is that she pieces together the trail by linking the time and location of known acts with where the conspirators were when they turned their phones are off.
In an early scene from the book (p. 35), frustrated at the FBI’s lack of progress and in a fit of pique at her new boss, who keeps calling and texting her for status updates, Imogen considers turning her phone off. To do so, she admits sourly, would be “like an act of treason.” She sits at her desk seething, looking over the scant bits of evidence she has—wallet, keys, drop phone: “Or,” she thinks, “if you were committing treason, wouldn’t you turn it off?”
She teams up with an IT specialist, Trey Kelly, who designs a trace very like the one Zeit created, only they overlay all four known conspirators, and look for meetings and similar times when their phones are switched off. Together, Trey and Imogen pick the lock on a door no one else thought to look for.
James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network. The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.
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