Geolocation Nightmare – When Cell Phones Lie About Location

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The Las Vegas Review-Journal has a story about geolocation gone wrong.  Two years ago, the retired 59-year old Wayne Dobson started to have to deal with strangers knocking on his door, demanding that he give them their missing phone back. Police have been called on him, he has received letters from people begging him to return their missing phones, and he has been called on his home phone more times than he can count.

The reason for this harassment: a programming glitch that normally allows users (as well as police) to track down their missing cellphones via GPS and triangulation keeps erroneously sending people to his small Las Vegas home. This glitch has been confirmed with at least one cellphone company (Sprint), and it has gotten Wayne into a lot of serious but undeserved trouble.

Since 2011, Dobson has had to deal with strangers approaching his home at all hours of the day and night. He has had to deal with trespassers, police accidentally arriving at his location for domestic violence calls, and he also has had to deal with strangers who are desperate for their phones who almost turn violent when he says that their phone isn’t in his home.  Even those Dobson has posted a sign in front of his Las Vegas home stating that he does not have peoples’ phones and for them to call the police, people keep knocking.

Both smartphone users and police use cellphone tracking for various purposes. Normal users track their cell’s location when they lose or have their phone stolen. There are even special apps on the marketplace for people who need to find their phones. Police now often use GPS cellphone tracking in order to reply to 911 calls that have been made via cellphone when the user is unable to provide a location.

Before GPS tracking was a common feature in cellphones, callers who would dial 911 without providing a location to police would get routed to the local police department based on the caller’s area code since there was no way to track the origin of the call. For example, if a person from New York with a 212 area code was visiting Chicago and got into a major accident, protocol would normally be to forward the call to the NYPD.  Now, the use of the phone’s GPS and triangulation from nearby cell towers provides an approximate location of the caller.

The glitch that Sprint users have to deal with is actually a problem with almost all cellphone providers’ GPS tracking. The GPS tracking doesn’t give an exact location for the phone but a location within 50 to 300 meters of the true location of the caller (Mashable published a summary of a study by Shopkick comparing cell phone locations based on GPS readings with the actual location of users within the stores they had just entered and found errors of up to a 1000 feet (a little over 300 meters).  For Sprint, one of these general GPS starting locations is Wayne Dobson’s home. Despite this problem persisting for two years, engineers at Sprint still do not know what is causing the GPS tracker to send people to Dobson’s house.

The mystery of the glitch GPS tracker is one that both the police and Sprint are taking very seriously. They are currently examining multiple possible sources for the problem, from the nearby cellphone tower to the carrier’s switchboard. Meanwhile, police are using Dobson’s strange situation to highlight to why people still need to have landlines in their home for emergency purposes.

Unfortunately, Dobson is not alone in experiencing this glitch.  WSDU reported in April of 2011 of a woman in Algiers, New Orleans who was having the same problem.

Apple's Find My iPhone app can help users track down lost or stolen phones.
Apple’s Find My iPhone app can help users track down lost or stolen phones.

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