Activist Guide to Security: Defeating Geolocation and Tracking

     by Max Wilbert / Deep Green Resistance

We live in a surveillance state. As the Edward Snowden leaks and subsequent reporting has shown, government and private military corporations regularly target political dissidents for intelligence gathering. This information is used to undermine social movements, foment internecine conflict, discover weaknesses, and to get individuals thrown in jail for their justified resistance work.

As the idea of the panopticon describes, surveillance creates a culture of self-censorship. There aren’t enough people at security agencies to monitor everything, all of the time. Almost all of the data that is collected is never read or analyzed. In general, specific targeting of an individual for surveillance is the biggest threat. However, because people don’t understand the surveillance and how to defeat it, they subconsciously stop themselves from even considering serious resistance. In this way, they become self-defeating.

Surveillance functions primarily by creating a culture of paranoia through which the people begin to police themselves.

This is a guide to avoiding some of the most dangerous forms of location tracking. This information is meant to demystify tracking so that you can take easy, practical steps to mitigating the worst impacts. Activists and revolutionaries of all sorts may find this information helpful and should incorporate these practices into daily life, whether or not you are involved in any illegal action, as part of security culture.

About modern surveillance

We are likely all familiar with the extent of surveillance conducted by the NSA in the United States and other agencies such as the GCHQ in Britain. These organizations engage in mass data collection on a global scale, recording and storing every cell phone call, text message, email, social media comment, and other form of data they can get their hands on.

Our best defenses against this surveillance network are encryption, face-to-face networking and communication, and building legitimate communities of trust based on robust security culture.

Capitalism has expanded surveillance to every person. Data collection has long been big business, but the internet and smartphones have created a bonanza in data collection. Corporations regularly collect, share, buy, and sell information including your:

  • Home address
  • Workplace
  • Location tracking data
  • Businesses you frequent
  • Political affiliations
  • Hobbies
  • Family and relationship connections
  • Purchasing habits
  • And much more

Much of this information is available on the open marketplace. For example, it was recently reported that many police departments are purchasing location records from cell phones companies such as Verizon that show a record of every tower a given cell phone has connected to. By purchasing this information from a corporation, this allows police to bypass the need to receive a warrant—just one example of how corporations and the state collaborate to protect capitalism and the status quo.

Forms of location tracking

There are two main types of location tracking we are going to look at in this article: cell tower tracking and GPS geolocation.

Cell phone tracking

Whenever a cell phone connects to a cell tower, a unique device ID number is transmitted to the service provider. For most people, their cell phone is connected directly to their identity because they pay a monthly fee, signed up using their real name, and so on. Therefore, any time you connect to a cell network, your location is logged.

The more cell towers are located in your area, the more exact your location may be pinpointed. This same form of tracking applies to smartphones, older cell phones, as well as tablets, computers, cars, and other devices that connect to cell networks. This data can be aggregated over time to form a detailed picture of your movements and connections.

GPS tracking

Many handheld GPS units are “receiver only” units, meaning they can only tell you where you are located. They don’t actually send data to GPS satellites, they only passively receive data. However, this is not the case with all GPS devices.

For example, essentially every new car that is sold today includes built-in GPS geolocation beacons. These are designed to help you recover a stolen car, or call for roadside assistance in remote areas.

Additionally, many smartphones track GPS location data and store that information. The next time you connect to a WiFi or cell phone network, that data is uploaded and shared to external services. GPS tracking can easily reveal your exact location to within 10 feet.

Defeating location tracking

So how do we stop these forms of location tracking from being effective? There are five main techniques we can use, all of which are simple and low-tech.

(a) Don’t carry a cell phone. It’s almost a blasphemy in our modern world, but this is the safest way for activists and revolutionaries to operate.

(b) Use “burner” phones. A “burner” is a prepaid cell phone that can be purchased using cash at big-box stores like Wal-Mart. In the USA, only two phones may be purchased per person, per day. If it is bought with cash and activated using the Tor network, a burner phone cannot typically be linked to your identity.

WORD OF CAUTION: rumor has it that the NSA and other agencies run sophisticated voice identification algorithms via their mass surveillance networks. If you are in a maximum-security situation, you may need to use a voice scrambler, only use text messages, or take other precautions. Also note that burners are meant to be used for a short period of time, then discarded.

(c) Remove the cell phone battery. Cell phones cannot track your location if they are powered off. However, it is believed that spy agencies have the technical capability to remotely turn on cell phones for use as surveillance devices. To defeat this, remove the battery completely. This is only possible with some phones, which brings us to method number four.

(d) Use a faraday bag. A faraday bag (sometimes called a “signal blocking bag”) is made of special materials that block radio waves (WiFi, cell networks, NFC, and Bluetooth all are radio waves). These bags can be purchased for less than $50, and will block all signals while your phones or devices are inside. These bags are often used by cops, for example, to prevent remote wiping of devices in evidence storage. If you are ever arrested with digital devices, you may notice the cops place them in faraday bags.

WORD OF CAUTION: Modern smartphones include multiple sensors including a compass and accelerometer. There have been proof-of-concept experiments showing that a smartphone inside a faraday bag can still track your location by using these sensors in a form of dead reckoning. In high-security situations where you may be targeted individually, this is a real consideration.

(e) Don’t buy any modern car that includes GPS. Note that almost all rental cars contain GPS tracking devices as well. Any time a person is traveling for a serious action, it is safest to use an older vehicle. If you may be under surveillance, it is best to use a vehicle that is not directly connected to you or to the movement.

Conclusion

There are caveats here. I am not a technical expert, I am merely a revolutionary who is highly concerned about mass surveillance. Methods of location tracking are always evolving. And there are many methods.

This article doesn’t, for example, discuss the simple method of placing a GPS tracker on a car. These small magnetic devices can be purchased on the private market and attached to the bottom of any vehicle.

However, these basic principles can be applied across a wide range of scenarios, with some modification, to greatly increase your privacy and security.

Good luck!

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