Thinking Ahead – Mitigation of cell phone surveillance and online tracking and when you can use them to advantage as an Amateur Radio Operator

Continuing the series started at i’d like to briefly touch on some items that track you that you might not have thought about.

As radio amateurs we have the idea of RDF (Radio Direction Finding) as a recreational part of our hobby through Fox Hunting.  If you need to get up to speed on Fox Hunting check out the ARRL’s index page of articles at

There are other transmitters and transponders we have in our lives that you should be aware of, and manage their impact on your OPSEC & PERSEC.

Cellphones are the ones we think of first, as we know they act as both transponders being triangulated by cell towers and also by data when acting as a beacon or in response to a request.  They also emit a signal on a regular basis when they are on.

All this happens with a cellphone in normal use.  When malware infected or subject to external manipulation they ramp up what they share, potentially sending audio and video with other data.

Modern units have a whole sensor package available to exploit. Here is a list from the latest iPhone:

iPhone 11 Sensors

  • Face ID
  • Barometer
  • Three‑axis gyro
  • Accelerometer
  • Proximity sensor
  • Ambient light sensor

Those are sensors in addition to multiple cameras and microphones.

Before you go wrap your cellphone in foil, there are a lot of upsides to the sensor package, provided the data is being used by a “good actor” on your behalf.

When diverted to a “bad actor” either at your phone, while in transit or loss of security at the good actor end, you could be put at risk.

Or even worse your loved ones could be put at risk if a bad actor determines that you are away on Emcomm/EmGov activities and they are less protected.

Dropping off the system can also raise flags.  If your good actor partners see you went “dark” they may come looking for you with an idea of providing help.

You have the same uncontrolled sensor issue with most modern cars, especially those with OnStar or similar systems.

Many of these OnStar type systems can use all of the vehicles sensors and data.  So properly interrogated they can tell if you are talking (and transmit the conversation), are speeding, get your location, and even shut your vehicle down.

It is very difficult to stay clear of the built-in squealer issues, as car systems are complex enough that some functionality maybe provided even if not presented to the driver.

And these systems do much more than just track you, they measure & record your usual patterns:

OnStar warns, “we may routinely collect information, such as … the location of your vehicle provided via satellite, or any other information, including your preferences or usage patterns.”

You home is full of squealers – everything from SmartTVs and appliances with IoT capabilities, to video doorbells and security systems, to net-able thermostats and of course your general power/gas/water usage now being reported in near real time by SmartMeters.

A lot to think about, and manage.

You also can use these systems to your advantage, especially to summon help.

If you are clever you can spoof some of these squealers to report your presence even if you are elsewhere.

Slightly an aside, some years ago the wolves were receiving radio transmitter collars which the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) arranged to be monitored in a near real time basis.  Part of this was to thwart the killing of the wolves, including those being taken by the Native Americans.

Story goes is the sensors only squealed periodically or if the collar detected that the collar didn’t have a warm wolf inside the collar any more.  So if the collar came off or if the wolf died, the collar squealed by radio.  The collar warmth detection had a small delay so if the wolf got wet by swimming or briefly had some snow between the collar and the wolf it wouldn’t create a false alarm.

Otherwise these early collars basically sent an “okay number 12345” message at regular times.

Several wolf’s collars changed from periodic “okay number 12345” type messages to “I’m dead, number 12345” messages together.  When the RDF (possibly satellite) located this group collars they were near St Louis Missouri, some 600 miles straight south!

Seems the wolf killers knew about the sensors and had attached them to semi tractor trailer rigs, either to reefer’s climate control units (powered units that are how stuff that has to be kept cold or kept from freezing can be moved) or the rigs themselves where they could pick up enough heat to avoid going into emergency mode.

Whether the wolf killers knew the technical details or it just seemed like a good idea, it worked.  Heard the collars all received updates to reduce the chance of a repeat performance.

In your tracker/squealer management you can use the same idea to keep your sensors happy and you under the radar – or to set them off in a way that would get some help.

If you believe your sensors are being used by a bad actor your management has to change to match that risk profile.



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