I have actually been learning on my own just by reading about VPN and how to protect myself from Big Brother so to speak. I just happened to discover that if I turn off my location option on my cell phone I would save a lot of energy and not have to plug it in so often and at the same time I realize that the GPS function would be defunct if I making the right connection there. However an interesting little pop-up always says that emergency personnel will never be able 2 b blocked by turning off my location option... In effect they can always find you. I find that disturbing since emergency Personnel is very general term and big brother and this country is getting more and more intrusive since 9/11. To my knowledge the only way to completely block GPS tracking through your IP address is to turn off the phone, if I am understanding things correctly. I only came to this understanding when I lost my phone and was unable to track it because it had died and therefore there is no way to find it through the app that was installed specifically to find a lost phone LOL.

My question is that I am considering testing in a VPN but before I do I want to make sure that I am understanding correctly that without IP address that is correctly pinpointing you to a location which is what a VPN service does, then emergency location would be defunct without having to actually turn off your phone?

I just find it really disturbing that they can always track you on your phone even with your location option turned off and since I'm new to this I just wanted to make sure that I could use my phone safely through a vpn and the emergency locations / services ( I mean how general is that term? They do not specify if it is a nine-one-one call or if it's just any government agency that wants to say they are operating under the emergency Services clause) would not be an option for Big Brother while I was using the VPN ie they would be clueless where I was.

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    The question is unclear. It covers different aspects which are unrelated to emergency services such as VPNs and IP geolocation which should probably be left out. Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 7:02
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    Hi and welcome to Security SE. Please be more specific. VPN does (almost) nothing to the location services of your phone.
    – Marcel
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 8:05
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    From my understanding the VPN makes no difference as they will just track you by GPS or by triangulating the signal between 3 phone masts...
    – k1308517
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 9:41
  • Concerning your Big Brother issue, you could carefully avoid location tracking by putting your cell phone in a good Farady bag (rather cheaply commercially available) or via a good shielding with a number of aluminium foils. Simply switching off the phone is not sufficient for that purpose. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 17:09
  • [Addendum:] (1) The history of locations obtained by the adversary during periods when the phone is not protected could nonetheless be of some value to him. (2) Ensure with tests that the protection measures employed are indeed effective. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 11:52

3 Answers 3


Phones can be localized by various means:

  • GPS sensor
  • Wireless networks in range: Imagine you drive through a country and for every point on the map you store the wireless networks that you are receiving a signal from. Later when you try to locate yourself, you can query the map with the networks you are currently receiving and find out where on the map you are located. This is actually what google etc. do and how phones can also be approximately located even while being indoors.
  • Cellphone towers. Your provider always knows to which cellphone tower your phone is connected. This gives a (compared to GPS rough) estimate of your location since the provider knows where its own towers are located. With multiple towers and simple triangulation the estimate can be further improved. With whom the providers share this information I don't know.
  • Your IP address: There exist geolocation databases for ip addresses, that map an IP address to its most likely geographic position. When you are using VPN, your public IP address changes to that of the end point you are connecting to. In other words, if you login to a german network with VPN, web sites and other online services seeing only your IP address will believe you are located in germany.

The first three methods are completely unaffected by the use of a VPN connection. And these methods are what the "emergency services" would most likely use to locate you. The fourth method basically helps your online anonymity, but that's about it. Your entry point to the network is still a cellphone tower, your GPS is still functional and your phone can still curate a list of nearby wireless networks, even though you are already connected to one.

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    Also note that locating a phone based on which base station ("tower") it is currently peering with can be done without the active assistance of the phone itself, because the network needs that information in order to route calls. All other alternatives listed in this answer require some kind of cooperation of the phone. (The phone can be coerced into talking to the cell phone network too, thus revealing its approximate location, but unless you are moving very fast isn't really required.)
    – user
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 13:59
  • Phone "cooperation" is the problem. For instance, when switching to airplane mode, there is no guarantee that the phone doesn't communicate every x minutes anyway. It's all proprietary software. Same holds for GPS.
    – Potaito
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 14:04
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    If a GPS device transmits anything on the frequencies used for GPS, I'm sure the US Department of Defense would be very interested in having a stern talk with someone involved. GPS can be used for determining one's position, but that position needs to be transmitted elsewhere in some other manner.
    – user
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 14:08
  • @MichaelKjörling GPS receivers in smart phones don't transmit anythingm they only listen. My point was simply that one can never be entirely sure whether the GPS sensor is fully powered down. There have been stories, but that's outside the scope of this question...
    – Potaito
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 18:47
  • Just a precision: GeoIP does not work for mobile devices (see my answer for more information), but I agree with the rest :). Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 8:48

There are different layers and concepts to locating a phone.

From a web server perspective:

  • using the IP (and a geo IP lookup), which gives a quite broad location (country or regional level)
  • adding the requested language (if any), in combination with the above can further narrow down the estimate

You can hide these with a VPN and a languange setting. However, the above does not serve "emergency personnel" at all.

For the network provider:

  • The antenna mast(s) the phone is connected (or in vincinty) to and the signal strength allow for triangulation of your position quite exactly (to the street/block level in cities)

This is the information that they hopefully would disclose to "emergency personnel". To avoid this, your only option is to switch off the phone.

  • Even switching the phone off may not be enough - the phone may only appear to be off. See this Skeptics.SE thread. Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 9:24
  • Yeah you would have to wrap the phone in aluminium foil or put it in a metal box to be completely sure.
    – Potaito
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 9:37
  • @potAito And even then the cell network would know where the phone was most recently seen.
    – user
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 13:57
  • Just a precision: GeoIP does not work for mobile devices: you are right that that you will get a very broad "country or regional level" information, what you will actually get is the user's mobile operator country, not the country where the user is currently located (he may travel abroad, the geolocated location will most likely remain the same). Moreover, in the US they are setting up a system where emergency personnel would be able to "ping" a cellphone to extract GPS location, they are not relying on anntena mast information. See my answer for more information and references. Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 8:53

Can my cellphone be located when I use X/Y/Z?

As long as it manages to reach any cell network, yes it can be located, and what you use on it will never change anything to this (no matter if it is GPS, VPN, or any other technology or software).

Your cellphone needs to contact nearest cellphone masts in order to reach the network, and once it's done the operator knows where your phone is located (and you're right, "Big Brother" seems indeed to use and abuse such kind of tracking).

The only ways to bypass this are to use:

  • A satellite phone. This is the most practical solution. According to Wikipedia, while it remains possible to locate such a phone it would be "inaccurate by tens of kilometers". Moreover most of terminals seem to support the manual entry of arbitrary GPS coordinates, avoiding any location relying on such information.
  • A single-use disposable phone bought in a brick-and-mortar shop and kept off until the first and single use.

Such solutions may seem overkill, but if for some reason you really fear of Big Brother tracking you personally then using a regular cellphone is definitively a no-go. Otherwise, you can just choose to accept the risk.

Yes, but what about the VPN and my IP address geolocation?

First, you must understand that IP geolocation works on your desktop PC because your Internet access point, ie. ISP's hardware providing the IP address is located roughly nearby your current location.

In the mobile world, this is not true anymore. To access the Internet, all mobile devices go through central operator's gateway operating as NATing device.

When geolocating a mobile device IP, what you will locate is actually this central operator's gateway, it will be tight to your subscription and completely unrelated to your current position: you may even even be abroad, the "geolocation" will still show the very same gateway from your original country.

Moreover, the same IP address being shared between hundreds or possibly thousands of unrelated mobile devices, the IP address does not allow to identify or track any particular device too.

At last, regarding the VPN thing, it will have exactly the same uses and restrictions as on a standard computer system:

  • It will hide your IP, allowing you to hide things like your original country, provider, etc.
  • It will hide the exact content of your data communication to your cellphone operator (it will not protect calls, unless you use some third-party VoIP service).

As per avoiding cellphone geolocation, using a VPN is just completely unrelated: bearing a tinfoil hat or a rabbit foot will be as effective.

And about emergency calls? How do they find me?

It largely depends the country you belong.

In France, when calling an emergency number the operator are mandated for years to provide user's location (includes user's postal address and location according to cellphone mats for mobile devices) in a secure, standardized and automated manner to the emergency services right from the beginning.

In the US, in the name of freedom, basically they do not find you. The operator seem to have the right to respond to a request coming from emergency teams by providing the information they have (location according to cellphones mats), but it is not mandatory and as far as I know there is no standardized, automated and secure way to do this in a time efficient fashion.

Law proposals seem to be on their way to allow emergency teams to "ping" your phone in order to fetch GPS location data. However, this raises privacy concerns on users side, and effectiveness concerns on emergency sides since such kind of location may remain ineffective indoor.

How can I reliably block GPS or this "pinging" thing?

You can you a GPS jammer, but its use may be forbidden in your country. Moreover, depending on your phone's location API implementation when no GPS location is available it may fallback to third-party location solution (mainly nearby WiFi and cellphone mats cell-id), making the GPS jamming solution both risky and unreliable for such use.

To target precisely the cellphone's GPS issue, on Android (at least) you have the possibility to inject fake GPS location. This will be effective for all application relying on a traditional location API.

At last, if you want to be certain that your phone doesn't send or receive any data (in your comments you seem to show some concerns regarding the reliability of the "plane mode"), then the simple yet effective solution is to wrap your phone in a heavy-duty aluminum foil.

  • iOS also has a feature for developers to manually change the GPS location
    – gsquaredxc
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 16:25

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