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Spies Can Track You Just By Watching Your Phone's Power ­se

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A smartphone user.

A new paper suggests the possibility of determining the location and movement of an Android smartphone by monitoring and analyzing its power consumption.

Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

A new paper from a team of researchers at Stanford University and Israel's Rafael defense research group found it is possible to determine an Android phone's location and movement by monitoring and analyzing its power consumption.

The paper describes a technique the researchers call PowerSpy, which employs machine-learning algorithms and the fact that cellular transmissions use more or less power depending on how far the phone is from a cell tower and whether obstacles such as buildings are blocking the signal.

The researchers found that by using a machine-learning algorithm to analyze a phone's power consumption, they were able to determine the location and movement of an Android phone with up to 90-percent accuracy, although with one major caveat: the phone had to be moving along one of a certain number of pre-measured routes. Although the researchers acknowledge this can somewhat limit the utility of the spying method, they say PowerSpy could still be used by spies or advertisers to determine where a specific person is on a regular route, such as a daily commute.

The researchers note Android allows all apps access to power consumption data, which means any app could be tweaked to track a user's location by employing PowerSpy.

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