Tracking Cell Phones as Urban Art
About a year ago, a security researcher noticed that it is possible to read a file on someone’s home computer and create a map showing the cell towers that their iPhone has accessed. It was an interesting hack, and not that big a deal until the “journalists” of the blogosphere got wind of it.
Suddenly, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth across the internet that ZOMG!!! U R Iphone iz Traxxing U!!!11!! as people with below average intelligences put one and one together and got eleven. Somehow it never occurred to them that a device that connects to cell towers and wifi hotspots might want to remember where those connections are so it can make better, faster connections in the future. If the feature was left out, it would have been ridiculed as “LOLz Apple FAIL!” But since it was included, it became “OMG! Security hazard!!!”
Out of curiosity, I tried to make a map from my data, but couldn’t because I have my computer set to encrypt my iPhone backups. I disabled the encryption and waited a couple of weeks, then made some maps, and the results turned out to be… pretty.
Above is a map showing my travels around Chicago. As you can see, I kept pretty much to the downtown area during the time period in question. But the grid patten generated from my travels makes for a great piece of art.
Looking at my travels around the Seattle/Vancouver/Victoria area from afar is much messier. Lots of overlapping blobs, but you can clearly see certain routes that I traveled repeatedly. More interesting, is all the cell towers that light up on the islands. I only visited a couple of those islands. The dots are from when I went past those islands on ferries.
A close-up view of the Seattle/Bellevue/Redmond/Issaquah area reveals the same grid that showed up on the Chicago map.
The same thing can be seen when zooming in on Victoria, British Columbia.
And then there’s this. This is a record of my phone in northwest Las Vegas. I’m not sure how this happened. I’ve never been to Las Vegas, or anywhere else in Nevada, but apparently my iPhone thinks I have. Nevada is one of the four remaining states I haven’t been to yet (Alaska, Hawaii, and Utah are the others). So, I think it’s safe to conclude that this so-called “tracking” that all the dumb people got their knickers in a twist about isn’t exactly 100 percent accurate. But it is at least very pretty.