Our world is rather complex with the way technology has advanced. Everything we use on a daily basis knows our location, tracks our usage, listens to everything we say, and tries to see what we are doing. This data is then sold or sent to governments, right under our noses. In our world, the user has become a product for studies and advertising businesses. My goal is to help you be aware of the most prolific method of this tracking and ways you can mitigate its effect, I may also cover some other methods to decrease your attack surface, especially for an emergency situation.
The smartphone was a revolution for communication, but as is progressed it became a bit of a detriment. You can find people talking about the tracking capability of our greatest tool since before 2020. A very prominent example is Pokemon GO, it was a game for your smartphone that allows you to catch Pokemon in the real world, using your camera and GPS of course. It not only got more people outside than any government program could and got them talking to strangers and making friends, it also had people taking their phones out during conversations with other people and staring at their phone screen and gave camera data, as well.
This warranted attention from the NSA and from various people that advocate for privacy. The NSA gave the developers an award for their work on Pokemon GO and few months after all the activity with it. Youtubers, commentators and the like talked about the implications of the award from the NSA, but also addressed the privacy concerns the such a game creates.
In 2020, COVID-19 brought a lot of tracking systems to the forefront, namely contact tracing. People make more "private" contact tracing apps, but any way you spin it, it just isn't truely private. Google and Apple added system updates that allowed people to track whether they came in contact with people who had tested positive with COVID. These systems could track your location based on the smartphones of others in your vicinity, that left any of their radios on. This created many privacy questions for anyone that didn't want to stay in their basement for a whole year. Not only did you not know who had COVID, but you didn't know who was tracking you now. We could talk about the possible HIPAA violations, but that is not our topic.
Another prominent factor of 2020 were the BLM Riots. People could be tracked based on location data on where they were. Crowds of people were tracked using all that telemetry being sent in to Google and Apple, but also various Cell Service Providers. Riot organizers in some ways mitigated interception by using encrypted channels to organize, like Telegram (which can still read messages), but even that only goes so far when you still have your smartphone on your person. 2020 alone has given us a lot of information about how companies and government track people, and thing like COVID and the BLM Riots helped bring that out for everyone to see.
The smartphone is truly a wonderful invention, I believe it, but it is also truly scary how much it can track you. I personally love privacy respecting tech, I have a smartwatch that doesn't sync to some cloud and lets me install any firmware I want on it. I got a Linux-based smartphone, that I don't use daily, that has hardware switches for things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the microphone, and so on. I use Linux on the daily, but even still there are ways that companies track me. I went over all this history, not just to scare you, but to hopefully show you some context as to why people support privacy respecting tech and keep moving away from Google and Apple for all their services and tech.
A lot of people don't often think about how their smartphone gives people their information all the time. The first and most basic thing that gives people away is location services. I turn mine off because I like preserving battery, but those services interface with Apple or Google to help show where you are located, and show Google or Apple where you are. These databases often times use a combination of factors, the first one is cellphone towers, this location tracking method even works when location services are turned off. Cell phone towers can triangulate where you are based on how many are in your vicinity and signal strength. This method also lets your cell provider track you with even just one cell tower, cause again, it uses the tower your are connected to and signal strength. There are also GPS satellites in space, that have been up there for ages, that tell your phone where you are. Another interest method in router location, everyone has probably seen a Google Streetview Car at least once in their life, this car also goes around reading Wi-Fi signals, and since it roams every street, it can triangulate where your router is with the network name and that data is in a public database of two. This database is also often referenced in helping determine your location, when you have your Wi-Fi antenna on. The biggest way I can think to mitigate this tracking method is to just put your phone in a faraday cage, but the alternative is to only never turn on location services, or only have it on when you really need navigation help. Having location services turned off also saves battery, so there's a plus to it.
So, as noted having your Wi-Fi antenna turned on can help you get a more accurate location, but it provides another security risk. Everyone knows that right out of the box, a router will broadcast a network that people can connect to, with the name of it and whether it has a password or not. A smartphone can also be a router of sorts to allow you to use your phones mobile data whereever you are on your computer, but what happens when you aren't connected to your Wi-Fi or using it to share data with a computer? If left on your phone will simply spit out every network name you have ever connected to trying to find one that it knows. Some say that this is a security feature, but it provides a huge liability by allowing people to find your home, because again, that network may be on a database that Google contributes to. So, not only are you giving away your network names, but you could be giving away every location you have been to without intending to. Luckily, there are features on some versions of Android that let you automatically turn off you antennas automatically when your aren't connected to a known network for a certain period of time. This also doubles as a battery saver, because trying to search for a network to connect to can eat at your battery. This same quirk of phone Wi-Fi also applies to your laptop, so keep that in mind. And that means all that data can be sniffed right out of the air by bad actors.
Bluetooth is another convenience that, while not as wide as cell phone towers, GPS, or Wi-Fi can still be an attack vector for tracking. I'm not the best at this currently either, and just like Wi-Fi, it can be timed to turn off automatically. Bluetooth lets you determine the name of your device, shown to anyone listening. I cannot tell you the countless number of devices I can find at any given moment when I am out and about. At home it is far less, but I do use it for wireless earphones and my smartwatch. My recommendation is that if you use it, use it, but if not then turn it off, or at least you might try a MAC address spoofer. The MAC address is a device identifier that is unique to your device, which is what these contact tracing apps often used to determine who you were around. And yes, a Wi-Fi card has a MAC address, too. If you want to not be tracked as easily, there are apps that let you spoof that address, if you have root permissions.
A lot of the other methods are decently short to cover, NFC is something that requires someone to be much closer to read, which can be turned off on most phones. NFC is what is used for Google/Apple Pay. Microphones, ever seen someone talk to their phone "Hey Google" or "Hey Siri?" Yeah, that means their phone is always listening, same with those Amazon Echos people like, a constant wiretap. Cameras, yeah a lot of camera apps actually embed location and other data in the photo by default, but there are apps that take that out or alternate camera apps that leave that out. Also, depending on what you are running, sometimes the developers can just take a peak at your camera without you knowing, but most people are worried about something getting caught on a microphone than that some NSA agent saw their naked butt.
The smartphone is a wonderful invention as I said, but it comes with drawbacks. You can't get rid of all the tracking, but some of this should help you keep your phone under wraps. The perfect way to not get tracked, is to learn to not be dependant of your phone. Learn to forget your phone at home, because people already know your normal route, but if they have data on you that is misleading, then down the road it can lead to less tracking when things get really tough. I would also complement this with a phone that has a privacy respecting OS on it, you can easily get a Pixel phone and install something like CalyxOS or GrapheneOS on it, which focus on privacy and come without anything from Google installed. They do allow you to install MicroG, which is an implementation that interfaces with Google for some services to work, but sends in spoofed device data, so they don't know what device you actually have. That is the basics for smartphone mitigation, but these also apply to other smart devices in similar respects, depending on what they use for communication.
As briefly mentioned, smartphones are not the only devices with these quirks. If you like to take a laptop with you, take into consideration Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but these can be put into a sniffer mode so that you are listening to traffic. A mobile workstation can be a great asset, but can also put a big target on you, if possible have hardware switches for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microphone, and the camera. If you go with a good laptop, my personal recommendation would be to try out Linux on it, not only will you learn something, but you can also have that system running for much longer. Having an old system that stays running can be an asset in an emergency situation when all your other tech is shot, even if that computer that is running is old. Learning to listen for signals from a computer helps you to track what is going on around you and can help you blend in.
One of the best ways to avoid being tracked is by blending in. In essence becoming a number that doesn't stick out, this is more applicable on the internet and browsing, by having your browser fingerprint being less unique. The fall of the tracking infrastructure is something that people have talked about going down, but the asset it is for governments is so big that, as time passes, I see it as something they will continue to keep up and functioning, even more reason to blend in. And again, this doesn't mean to go all in with Google or Apple, you can still take your mark off of their servers and decrease your footprint by a lot. This more applies to your cell providers and any other nefarious sniffers out in the wild.
Another thing I have heard brought up is the use of radios, yes, Amatuer Radio. This is a system that is unencrypted, but can be a great asset out in the middle of nowhere. It gives you a line of communication in emergencies when cell phones don't work, but lets you organize with those you know. S2 Underground has a lot of great videos on radio and other communication techniques, even for emergencies and to avoid being tracked. You can find their content here, https://odysee.com/@S2Underground:7
Minimizing your digital footprint isn't something that you do just when emergencies hit, it is a lifestyle you live to be ready for when it happens. If you don't live it, then suddenly drop, they still have data on your regular behavior. By stopping early, you can change through life and not have them knowing everything going on. It may feel painful at first, but you get used to it. You can have the knowledge for any skill in your head, but unless you practice in before hand and test it out, it will be meaningless when you get caught in an emergency or sticky situation.