Nervously, I gave a bounty hunter a phone number. He had offered
to geolocate a phone for me, using a shady, overlooked service
intended not for the cops, but for private individuals and
businesses. Armed with just the number and a few hundred dollars,
he said he could find the current location of most phones in the
The bounty hunter sent the number to his own contact, who would
track the phone. The contact responded with a screenshot of Google
Maps, containing a blue circle indicating the phone’s current
location, approximate to a few hundred metres.
Queens, New York. More specifically, the screenshot showed a
location in a particular neighborhood — just a couple of blocks
from where the target was. The hunter had found the phone (the
target gave their consent to Motherboard to be tracked via their
The bounty hunter did this all without deploying a hacking tool or
having any previous knowledge of the phone’s whereabouts. Instead,
the tracking tool relies on real-time location data sold to bounty
hunters that ultimately originated from the telcos themselves,
including T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint, a Motherboard investigation
has found. These surveillance capabilities are sometimes sold
through word-of-mouth networks.
To say this is an outrageous privacy violation is an understatement. It’s downright dangerous. The carriers’ defense is basically that they only intended to sell this data to the “right” people, and the fact that these middlemen are reselling it to the “wrong” people is against their “terms”. Fuck that. This data should not be sold to anyone, period. This is no better than if the carriers let people pay to listen to your phone calls. Honestly, for me and my family, our location data is more private than the content of our calls.