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The science of tracking

At Track24, our priority is keeping your people safe. Through this blog we will uncover tracking in the digital world with two of our experienced engineers: Software Engineer, Yasmine Fadel and Head of Engineering, Sven Schneemann. Their blog delves into everything you need to know about the science behind tracking.

An analysis of tracking and its origins

Track24 has been in the business of tracking for more than fifteen years. Since 2020, tracking has come to the forefront of public consciousness as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and ‘track and trace’ apps. As a result, “tracking” has suffered some pretty negative connotations, most notably around the issue of user privacy. 

Tracking and privacy in the digital age

With the rise of documentaries such as ‘The Social Dilemma’ and news of data leaks, there’s been attention brought onto the subject of how to preserve privacy in the digital age. The public has been awash with stories of security breaches at major retailers, financial institutions and has even led the US military to reexamine its security policies after fitness tracker data shared on social media revealed bases and patrol routes.

“The biggest danger may come from potential adversaries figuring out ‘patterns of life’, by tracking and even identifying military or intelligence agency personnel as they go about their duties or head home after deployment. These digital footprints that echo the real-life steps of individuals underscore a greater challenge to governments and ordinary citizens alike: each person’s connection to online services and personal devices makes it increasingly difficult to keep secrets.” Source.

These events and the doubts they’ve inspired have contributed to people thinking more about ‘data insecurity’, which impacts their daily decisions and activities. This has, unsurprisingly, given the concept of ‘tracking’ a negative connotation. 

There are a variety of personal attitudes when it comes to tracking – some find it deeply troubling and want more data security points in place, whilst a few remain relatively unphased. Overall, it seems certainly in the US, “Majorities think their personal data is less secure now, that data collection poses more risks than benefits, and believe it is not possible to go through daily life without being tracked.” Source

A common feeling among a large percentage of people is that they have little to no control over the data that is collected about them and how it is used. “62% of Americans believe it is not possible to go through daily life without data being collected about them.” Source.

Research has even shown that people have exceedingly low levels of confidence in the privacy and security of their records that are maintained by varying institutions in the digital age.

“81% of Americans think the potential risks of data collection by companies about them outweigh the benefits.” Source.

We aim to put any concerns to rest at Track24. We are a duty of care driven, privacy-first organisation.  

The science behind cookies

When you visit any website these days, you will be asked to give your consent for cookies. Cookies are used to identify if you’re a returning visitor, analyze your use of a specific website and give access to third party services to build a profile of your interests in order to show you relevant adverts on other websites. This is one of the many ways user behavior is tracked.

With changes to the use of cookies and third-party data collection proposed by Google in 2022 and with Apple set to follow suit, social media presents itself as an increasingly important tool for companies to influence user behaviour and drive customers to follow through with their purchases. 

“With third-party data sources such as the cookie under threat, Apple downgrading the mobile identifier for advertisers, and data collection in general growing tougher, businesses increasingly need to find reliable, consensual data wherever they can get it. Social media is one of the solutions to that problem.

Eighty-five percent of business executives say social data will be a major source of business intelligence, according to an online Harris Poll commissioned by social marketing firm Sprout Social. Ninety-five percent said social data would help them power business initiatives, including those outside of marketing.” Source.

Street Fight’s article notes, a positive social media experience would lead 78% of customers to follow through with a purchase or choose a brand over competitors.

The science behind satellites 

Another of the most common “tracking” applications is used daily by millions of people: Satellite navigation. The global positioning system (GPS) is a dominating positioning technology and navigation satellite-based system, allowing us to find our way to work, when visiting family and friends, or when strolling around on vacation and has enjoyed enormous popularity over many years. 

A GPS receiver communicates with a satellite system and lets you know where you are on a map. A receiver acquires signals from several orbiting satellites and processes them. The receiver has a built-in map. A GPS receiver calculates its position on Earth in three-dimensional coordinates which can be converted to latitude, longitude and altitude. A receiver can be used anywhere on Earth, at any time of day and in any weather conditions. A receiver needs to have a line of sight with a satellite to receive its signal – this means it cannot be used under a bridge or buildings. 

Prior to GPS, precise positioning was achieved with inertial guidance systems or low altitude satellites. Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSSs) are satellite positioning systems and refer to all past, existing and planned sat-nav systems. Early satellite navigation systems include TRANSIT, SECOR, SIKADA with several navigation satellite systems still operational. 

COMPASS of China (or Beidou in Chinese) is an experimental navigation system, unlike GPS, it uses satellites in geostationary orbit. GALILEO of the European Union (EU) is a GNSS and is under development. GLONASS of Russia, is similar to GPS in its architecture and is another operational GNSS that is in the process of being modernized. 

GPS was developed as part of a military satellite-based navigation system, and was released for public use by the mid-1980s and currently has the most accurate positioning system available to navigators and was quickly adopted to be in use in millions of devices for varying use cases.  

Satellites in space 

Did you know, at the time this article is being written, there are 66 Iridium-powered satellites all operating in low earth orbit in space? They are at a distance of around 781 kilometers away from earth in a polar orbit offering full global coverage of the globe, our Wave and shout Nano products at Track24 take advantage of this network.

Another type of satellite network is ORBCOMM M2M network and is used to power our very own IDP780, or The Rhino devices. The Rhino’s dual mode functionality can save lives in cases where mobile connectivity is unavailable, by reporting over satellite celular. We explore instances of areas in the world where mobile connectivity is unavailable later in this blog.

Satellite mapping: Mapping it out

Satellite mapping is a vital component of modern mapping technology. Moderate resolution satellites are useful in monitoring the dynamics of the Earth’s surface. This is as a result of their frequent temporal coverage. Using repetitive global measurements from satellites, mapping may include the dynamical aspects of the world’s surface. Source

Satellite images taken at slightly different angles can be viewed together, in order to give a representation of depth. This process is referred to as satellite imagery. Source. High resolution mapping satellites serve as the main driving force promoting the geo-information industry. Source.

Mobile phone masking or triangulation tracking vs satellite tracking

Different levels of accuracy are achieved from satellite tracking vs phone masking or triangulation tracking. What is mobile phone masking, or triangulation tracking, we hear you cry? The Irish Times’ business technology article gives a concise explanation: “When you turn your mobile phone on, it automatically connects your phone and Sim card to the nearest mobile phone mast, giving you access to the network. When it does that, it sends two numbers, one identifying the Sim card and the other identifying the phone (the IMEI number), to the network.” Source.

Satellite tracking can prove more useful than phone masking or triangulation tracking in remote locations and in non- and semi-permissive countries, where phone networks and access to the internet are blocked, as we see in recent scenarios around the globe.

Mobile network tracking and cellular and internet shutdowns have become a growing technique used by governments around the world to control the sharing of information in dictatorships. 

“Access Now reported not just an increase in internet shutdowns in 2019, but also a “trend toward sustained and prolonged shutdowns” with 35 incidents of internet shutdowns lasting longer than seven days last year. Chad, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Eritrea, Mauritania, Sudan, and Zimbabwe are among the 19 countries that fully or partially shuttered internet access for more than seven days.” Source.

Other examples of mobile phone and internet black-outs and censorship by global government’s we’ll hone in on include Myanmar, Tanzania and Uganda in the last elections.

‘In all of these incidents not only are the at risk individuals desperately trying to get a message out, but support teams are trying to get messages and help in’ notes Rob Phayre MBA, Risk and Resilience Manager at Shell, in his fantastic LinkedIn article ‘Do traveler risk management Apps give you a false sense of security?’ which can be read here. Source

By cutting access to media outlets, social media and effectively the rest of the world, dictatorships attempt to squash the spreading of not only misinformation, but any information at all.

Tracking the situation: Northern Mozambique 

Consider the state of humanitarian emergency and atrocity taking place in Cabo Delgado in Northern Mozambique right now. Mobile and internet censorship seems the least of the population’s worries, as the UN names the “Humanitarian catastrophe in Northern Mozambique ‘beyond epic proportions.” Source

The horror of the situation includes ‘citing reports of atrocities carried out by child soldiers, alleged beheadings during attacks by non-State armed groups, and clashes in the Cabo Delgado region.’ Source.

Yet, how are the many citizens in danger to request help, when mobile and internet access is entirely denied? Countless times, we see regimist governments banning mobile communications, mobile and even landline internet, as well as international communications in major incidents, often with no notice.

Tracking the situation: Myanmar

Myanmar’s government has recently shut down the internet in a blackout process intended to quell freedom of speech.

‘Myanmar’s acting military leadership has shut down broadband internet service indefinitely in response to ongoing protests. The move comes two months after a military junta staged a coup to depose the country’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.’ Source.

‘The shutdown applies to wireless broadband service, while a separate order banning mobile internet at night remains in effect. The orders were given to state telecoms, though no official reason has been given.’ Source.

The shutdown has reached new severity, as multiple telecoms have been ordered to shut off internet services such as mobile data, roaming and public Wi-Fi for varying amounts of time. This drastic action appears to be designed to interfere with citizens, journalists and human rights activists broadcasting what’s happening in Myanmar with the rest of the world.

Additionally, the New York Times has reported the use of surveillance drones and phone-hacking devices, (including iPhone hacking tools) by Myanmar’s military as part of a digital offensive against opposition. Source.

With three weeks so far of internet and mobile phone connection black out, the rest of the world observes how tracking and monitoring of mobile phone networks is being used to suppress individual freedoms and particularly freedom of speech.

Tracking the situation: Uganda and Tanzania

During Uganda’s January 2021 election, after a month of targeted restrictions, Ugandan authorities shut down the internet in the country hours ahead of the January 14th 2021 election polls. Source. During an information black out, there were also reports of specific mobile phones being targeted and prevented from making calls or sending messages. 

Uganda was affected by similar measures in 2016. These scenarios further demonstrate how mobile phone tracking, cellular censorship and surveillance are enforced to prevent discussions from journalists, the media, civil rights groups, protestors and members of the public.

The blocking of mobile phone networks was apparent before the October 2020 election in Tanzania. “With only four days to go before Tanzania’s hotly contested presidential election on October 28, the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) has ordered telco service providers to suspend access to bulk short messaging services (SMS) and bulk voice services. We have also received reports that individual text messages with election-related keywords are being blocked, and more expansive internet blocking may follow.” Source.

This was the latest development in a series of government actions to undermine digital rights in Tanzania.

Tracking the situation: Ethiopia during the Tigray crisis

Through mobile phone network and internet censorship, during the recent Tigray crisis the Ethiopian government largely executed a news blackout.

“For the duration of the war, Abiy’s government has sought to censor any independent or critical coverage of the conflict.” Source.

This process has combined internet blockages, intimidation of the media and aid workers and restrictions on foregin journalists. The examples cited show governments and regimes exploiting the science of tracking, for the illest of causes. 

With dictatorships in countries and regions all over the non-permissive world blocking mobile phone networks, is there any way around such suppression of communication? 

The advantages of dual mode hardware solutions

How do satellite networks offer a solution to the blocking of mobile phone networks, to aid communications in some cases?

If, like many of Track24’s customers, you are working in remote or non- or semi-permissive areas where cellular networks may be unavailable, dual mode functionality can quite literally be a life-saver. Take, for example, our dual-mode Rhino, hardware device. The Rhino IVMS uses Orbcomm M2M network when cellular networks are not available, presenting monitoring teams with real-time global visibility, security and accountability to their fleets, drivers and employees on the ground. 

Furthermore, our hardware devices, the Wave and the Shout Nano operate using the Iridium Short Burst Data (SBD) satellite network, ensuring your people can be kept safe and secure, even in the most remote locations.

Takeaways

This article has picked our Engineers’ brains, in order to provide you with thought leadership around the science behind tracking. We’ve explored the origins of tracking and tracking in the digital age, Cookies tracking, shared a whole lot of insightful information about satellites, considered triangulation tracking compared to satellite tracking and explored real-world examples of mobile phone network blackouts. 

At Track24 we inform and share our expert insight. We’re constantly developing technology to reduce risk and improve safety for your people.