KEY POINTS

  • Mobile devices can give away the precise location of its users
  • Malicious people can use a person's location data to track him
  • The NSA has issued new guidance about this matter

Mobile location data can be very useful, but it can also pose a threat to a person's safety and security, the National Security Agency (NSA) warns.

User location data can be very helpful depending on the situation. It can help people pinpoint where they are when they get lost in a new location, assist emergency services in getting to people who need medical and emergency assistance as fast as possible and help parents locate their kids if ever they get separated in large crowds.

New guidance issued by the NSA, however, indicates that location data can also pose a threat to user safety. According to the guidance, which was rolled out as a warning for Department of Defense personnel and people with access to sensitive federal systems, it might be used by those with malicious intentions for the wrong reasons.

How that happens

The NSA described a slew of ways by which mobile devices can give away a user's location data. These include more than just the usual GPS.

  • Mobile devices trust cellular networks

The NSA said mobile devices normally give away their location when they connected to cellular networks and providers.

People with malicious intentions can force providers to expose the device's location. They can also use equipment to acquire mobile device data to track their targets.

  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

The NSA specifically said that devices can still give away user location even without cellular connection. This can happen via Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth connections. Wi-Fi access points and Bluetooth sensors can compromise user location.

  • Online fingerprinting

Users can avoid cellular networks and Bluetooth connections, but their online presence can be used to fingerprint their identity and determine their location, the NSA said.

  • Non-mobile devices

Malicious persons can also acquire user location data even if the target doesn't have a mobile phone, the NSA said. This can be done via Internet of Things devices, fitness trackers, smart home devices and even built-in vehicle communications technology.

“Anything that sends and receives wireless signals has location risks similar to mobile devices,” the NSA said in the guidance.

The NSA recommends that people avoid revealing their location to keep themselves safe from location tracking. They must avoid giving permissions to apps that ask for location data unless necessary, disable advertising permissions as much as possible, use virtual private networks VPN when applicable and minimize the amount of data they store in the cloud.

NSA's warning comes two years after the Pentagon issued a memorandum banning deployed personnel from using all devices and apps with geolocation services like fitness trackers and smartphones, CNN reported.

fitness tracking app fitness tracking app Photo: StockSnap/Pixabay