Let's say I buy a second-hand USB dongle and put in a pre-paid and unregistered data SIM card. At the time of the purchase of both items, my face was covered, I paid cash and I live 500 miles from the purchase location.

I stick the dongle into my laptop that runs a Linux live operating system. Once in a while, I go to a certain website where my IP is revealed. My adversary is a government agency with massive resources. How accurately can they locate me?

As far as I understand, the IMEI of the device and SIM info will be broadcast to the Internet provider. Also, with cellular triangulation they will be able to pinpoint to an area. I understand that I can be located to some extent, but to what extent? How close can they get? Within 1 mile? within 100 meters? within 10 meters?


Cellular location without GPS can vary dramatically depending upon many factors. The general working guideline is 1000 feet.

High density areas with micro cells can go much smaller, and low density areas can be miles.

  • Could you be more specific and provide references so I can get a better understanding of what is technologically possible when trying to track a 3G usb dongle. How close can an adversary really get to you in a high density areas and how do they achieve this? Would you say staying in low density areas would be safer from a anonymity point of view? – cheekykid Oct 20 '19 at 11:41
  • Here's a quick locator reference: "wrongfulconvictionsblog.org/2012/06/01/…". Your additional questions lead into factors other than location limits via cell towers. – user10216038 Oct 20 '19 at 15:59
  • I recall reading before that article but I don't know enough to validate the information cited there.Do you concur what is stated is valid? My understanding is that in very dense cities with more than one cell tower at play the tracking would be a lot more accurate but even then given the considerable amount of houses per street we would still be talking about over a 1000 houses where in any of them the dongle could be located. Have I got this roughly right? Are we certain in the absence of a GPS a USB dongle can't be tracked accurately enough to find the exact house it is located in? – cheekykid Oct 20 '19 at 19:53
  • Even with low density it can be miles, or it can be much more precise, if you've got clear line of sight to several well-separated cells. If you went to something a shopping centre or major railway station, they'd be able to locate you fairly precisely - to a place with hundreds if not thousands of anonymous people (and lots of CCTV). – Chris H Oct 21 '19 at 10:33
  • Would you say then that under normal circumstances and in a high density city with vast number houses all next to each other/high rise buildings it is not possible for the tracking to come down to within say 30 meters? – cheekykid Oct 21 '19 at 15:08

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