So many of us have been there; you leave your smartphone somewhere and forget to pick it up, or the less fortunate may have been victims of a theft. Unfortunately, these situations happen and forgetfulness or a thief can deprive us of our beloved phone. It’s not only the monetary loss, but also a personal one due to the loss of our data such as contacts, videos and photos.
However, thanks to geolocation technology, there may still be hope of finding a lost phone again!
How mobile geolocation works
Finding a lost smartphone can happen in a few different ways. We obviously should assume that the phone is switched on and that at least one of the GPS, Wi-Fi or mobile connection modules are active.
Geolocation services take advantage of:
- Coordinates detected by the GPS system
- Geographical location of the access points in Wi-Fi connections
- Mobile phone networks
The position defined by the GPS system is the most accurate. Thanks to GPS satellites, the position of the phone can be identified with a precision of just 10-20 metres. However, the smartphone must be in an area for the GPS antenna to have good signal. It’s simple to understand that if the phone is in a closed location (i.e. a room or underground), GPS reception is virtually non-existent and consequently the geolocation of the phone is not possible.
If the smartphone is connected to a Wi-Fi network, geolocation takes place using the MAC address (the unique identifier that each hardware vendor attaches to the Ethernet or wireless network adapters) of the access point or the router that provides the connection. The system works in this way: mobile devices usually collect the nearby routers and access points MAC addresses and transmit them to the databases used by geolocation services, in order to geographically map their global deployment.
To find the location of a phone connected to a Wi-Fi network, just find the MAC address of the access point and check the database to see its geographical address. Geolocation through Wi-Fi may not be very accurate, for example if the location of the access point with that particular MAC address has not yet been determined accurately. The IP address could also be used for location purposes.
Finally, the use of the mobile network is based on the use of cellular ID data for the mobile transmitter, triangulating the information with the known location of other neighbouring mobile transmitters.
How to find your smartphone
Apple provides its iOS devices with Find my iPhone app. The app must be configured on your device (iPhone or iPad) following the instructions. In case of loss or theft, you can access https://www.icloud.com/ from any browser and thanks to your AppleID use the web version of Find my iPhone to locate the device on the map. You can remotely make a sound, turn on lost mode or initialise your iPhone or iPad.
On Android devices, you should have ticked “Locate this device” option and in addition “Allow lock and factory reset” and then enter the Android Device Manager at https://www.google.com/android/devicemanager using the Gmail account used to activate the phone. Like Apple, also Google will show the position of your mobile device on a map, offering you the ability to make a sound, lock or erase your smartphone remotely.
Apple and Google apps for iOS and Android do not exhaust all the possibilities; there are other third party apps in the Apple Store and Google Play Store that can help you to find your lost smartphone.
The most advanced features allow you not only to find where your phone is but also let you have complete remote control. For example, there are some that let you take a picture and send it via email (in the hope of recognising where the phone is located or in the hope of taking an image of the thief), remotely view the call log of your smartphone or even the SMS messages sent. This is possible even if your original SIM has been replaced by another one (you will receive the phone number of this new SIM remotely, too).
Interestingly, at Kroll Ontrack our UK Managing Director Phil Bridge experienced the usefulness of Find my iPhone first hand when his phone was stolen recently:
My iPhone was stolen from a pub in Canary Wharf and Find my iPhone proved invaluable in getting it back. I thought it was stolen by one of the barmen in the pub, as it was more or less empty at the time, and I suspect they then passed the phone onto someone else. When I realised it had been stolen (and after a lengthy discussion with the staff!) I accessed the web version of Find my iPhone on my friend’s phone and saw that my phone was showing up as being in a nearby bar, about 500ft away from our current location. I called my phone multiple times and finally someone answered – it was the manager of the nearby bar, who claimed he had found my phone abandoned on a sofa. I now think that because I made the barman (and suspected thief) aware that I was tracking it with Find my iPhone, it then caused him to alert his accomplice and ditch the phone to avoid getting caught! I was then able to safely collect my phone, knowing it had already been found. Whilst I had the option of wiping my device clean, I had family pictures and messages that were not yet backed up to the cloud. If it wasn’t for technology like this I would have lost not only my phone but also my important personal data.
Be prepared and be smart
Obviously, nobody wants to lose their smartphone, but if this happens with modern geolocation technologies you still have some hope of finding it again. Remember to properly configure your phone right after you purchase it, or once you’ve finished reading this article!
If your device has been lost you can go to the location suggested by the geolocation service to look for it, but if you suspect that the phone has been stolen do not act alone! The best course of action is to contact your local police office and ask for help in order to avoid a potentially risky situation.
Have you lost your phone or tablet before? Were you able to find it again? Get in touch with us by tweeting @KrollOntrackUK