GPS on mobile devices

This text offers you multiple aspects about global positioning systems for mobile devices.

We will cover their functions, the applications that use them, and how they are being used, including both good and evil purposes, on a daily basis. The highlight will be the possibility of tracking people and mobile phones with this system.

Finally, we will cover their history, and the future uses of global positioning.

GPS or Global Positioning System

The way of locating someone at ground-level -or even on air- it’s being redefined with the current technological advances. This is caused by the new technologies developed for mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, since in almost all of these devices we will have an electronic element of big relevancy: the Global Positioning System (GPS.)

This is a tool that allows you to determine the position of an element at ground-level with a high level of accuracy. This implies that anyone with a mobile device is potentially exposed to espionage, that is, that anyone could be spied on by the government, by their significant other, of even by delinquents.

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The development of this technology began during the 60s. However, it was on the year 1999 when the first cell phone with an integrated GPS in its circuitry appeared, the Benefon Esc!, a device that, even though it wasn’t a smart device, it gave us an idea of what would come regarding the browsing possibilities of these devices.


First GPS Phone
By Jtact at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The GPS is a system that, by using special software and hardware, allows the device to locate the user in any place on the planet. It is connected via microwaves to space and establishes communication with three satellites from a series of satellite systems used for such goal.

This way, and after a series of calculations done with software, it can give the location of a user with a minimal margin of error, which is of just a few meters. It is estimated that, for 2018, this margin will be of only 30 cm. Cell phone tracking and, therefore, people tracking, has reached an incredible level of accuracy via these systems.

A Matrix world thanks to GPS

As of 2017, it is common to make a virtual correlation with our physical reality through the use of blueprints or cybernetic routes. This makes me afraid that, soon, once artificial intelligence of high intelligence becomes an everyday aspect of our daily lives, we will live in a world too similar to the Matrix movie. And we need to add that all of that will have GPS technology running in the background.

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In fact, the location and navigation North American system via satellite has become an authentic revolution in our way of perceiving the world. With this fact, I can’t stop thinking just how similar is the world of 2017 to everything that had been shown to us on cartoons and sci-fi movies on the past.

I came to these conclusions a few days ago, when I was commuting in my car. I was going to visit a person, whose house I had never gone before. Their apartment, located on the outskirts of the city, had an address that was too complicated to remember. Or at least, it was too hard to explain it to another person in a classic format.

By classic format I mean the way in which one used to give an address before Google arrived, the multifaceted company that has a wide variety of branches. One of these branches is Google Maps, a tool that depends on the use of GPS systems from mobile devices to locate addresses and be able to navigate.


Photo via

Waze: The collaborative app

That night, after receiving a recommendation from a friend, I decided to use the Waze app instead of Google Maps, which has similar functionalities. Unlike the latter, the former has a collaborative aspect among the users of it.

While I was driving, I noticed that Matrix’s world is here and now. The real route in front of me was dark, but, in my mobile phone, a virtual route was appearing while a female voice was telling me exactly where to go.

Waze is used by over 100 million users worldwide. Said app requires you to put the destination address, and it will show you the route in a format that almost seems straight out of a sci-fi movie. Additionally, the voice that gives directions from corner to corner is faithful to the experience of watching a sci-fi movie.

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In Waze, thanks to its collaborative aspect, you can obtain information about problems in the route in real time, and alternate routes are permanently given to the driver. This application is available for the iOS, Android, Windows Phone 8, BlackBerry OS, Symbian, and Windows Mobile operating systems.

Google Maps

Speaking of Google, it is precise to mention that our first comparison to Matrix has been caused, without a doubt, this super company. Regarding Google Maps, one of the key aspects of this tool is that it offers maps were multiple layers overlay, from walking routes, driving routes, as well as a the geographical aspects of them. This way, the approximation of the routes to the real world becomes more and more realistic. However, this app has certain aspects that puts it a disadvantage compared to others.

For instance, Google Maps is ideally used when you have an internet connection, which produces costs, especially when you’re navigating. There is the possibility to download the maps beforehand while you have internet connection, but, as it tends to happen in real life thanks to Murphy’s Law, you may need an additional map that you had forgotten to download. However, Google Maps’ database is quite extensive, and includes maps from over 220 countries.

Additionally, Google Maps does not encourage participation in the sense that other users cannot partake on the configuration of the state of the routes in real-time, but the app provides with colors the most and least transited routes. Google Maps is available for the Windows, Android, and iOS operating systems.


Another application that is very good as a means to help you navigate is TOMTOM Go Mobile, which has been a traditional business on the development of GPS devices.

Said company made this application due to the rise of mobile devices with built-in GPS. One of its best features is its big database, which is constantly updated from the company’s headquarters. The app allows you to navigate 75 km for free each month. After that period of time, you will have to pay an amount in Euros that can be paid either annually or each three years.

Similarly, Sygic is a navigation app that has the bonus of having a HUD that allows you to see information over your car’s windshield. This app is free, and allows the user to have access to TOMTOM’s maps, even if you are offline.

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Other apps that aren’t massively used

Maps.Me is an app that is specialised in offline navigation. The map service that is used by this application is OpenStreetMap. This app is available for the Android, iOS, and BlackBerry operating systems.

Lastly, an interesting app to use for navigation is ROUTE 66, which combines online and offline navigation modes so that your data consumption is minimized. Also, this app as a very user-friendly navigation mode, the “Fellow Me” mode. It is available on Android and iOS.

Even significant others arrive via GPS

GPS technology integrated into cell phones is not only affecting navigation. The new ways of finding a significant other also use this technology. Such is the case of Tinder, one of the most used apps for said purpose. Additionally, we also have Badoo and their associated applications such as Hot or Not, which rely on GPS to be able to show you potential matches that are available on nearby areas. Other apps with this purpose are POF and Tagged, as well as Grindr. This last one is an iconic app in the Gay community.

Locate Phone by using phone GPS

Everyone can be tracked anywhere on Earth


The cell phone´s location in space allows it to be tracked at any moment, which makes it possible for many anti-theft apps to exist. This can be proved with the existence of apps such as Geosignal or Cerberus.

I recently became aware of the dangers that I’m exposed at when I met up with a Latin American friend who told me that her entire family used Cerberus since, as it is common in some cities of South America, the risk of being kidnapped was high. The situation sounded appalling. She and her husband took the decision of downloading this app since it could even take pictures of whoever used the phone without authorization.

Prey Anti-theft

Another quite popular app in the security world is Prey Anti-theft. This app offers the possibility of protecting up to three devices, so it is ideal if you want to share it with family members. Likewise, there are other apps that offer services of this kind, such as Lookout, 360 Security – Antivirus, Find Mobile Phone Android, and Avast! Anti-Theft.

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WhatsApp: Geographical location

No one is exempt of being tracked. Even WhatsApp, which is the leading instant-messaging app, used by over 1000 million users, is implementing a geographical location mode to locate members of WhatsApp groups. Even though this fact could make some people to panic due to privacy issues, since privacy breaches are possible. In fact, each user decides whether or not the app can provide said information.

Facebook and Twitter

Massively used social network services, such as Facebook and Twitter, also rely on global positioning to improve the user experience. Facebook even has a function that sends you a notification whenever any of your contacts is nearby.

Also, Twitter uses geographical location in its algorithm. This occurs with the purpose of showing you the Timeline in a way that could garner more attention from many users depending on their location.

Now then, due to privacy reasons, not everyone likes such degree of exposure. There are users that prefer a more discreet approximation due to the risks that pose some of the functionalities that modern technology uses.

The government could spy you

The topic of privacy is a serious issue. For this reason, today’s world forces us to keep in mind the possibility that someone else may be spying on us without our consent. The government, our significant other, or even someone at work could be doing it.

In fact, recently, a friend told me that her daughter had installed an app to spy on her boyfriend. What she discovered brought a big problem to the couple, and the relationship got broken. The guy was permanently linked with women that offer paid services.

How does satellite tracking work?

There is a technological branch that transmits information outside of planet Earth by using this technology, which originally started on the military. The principle in which all of this relies on is the one called true range multilateration, that is, the position of a mobile phone with respect of three satellites.

True range multilateration is a technique analogous to the one called triangulation, which allows you to geographically locate radio stations, at ground-level through the reception of signals that this one emits through three receptors located on different places. Then, afterwards, you can locate the station by using a simple geometry exercise and the triangle theory.

In the case of GPS technology and true range multilateration, the mobile device establishes communication with three different satellites located in the lower layers of Earth’s orbit, that is, at around 20,000 km above sea level. Then, through the time differences at which the different phone signals arrive, and after doing powerful math calculations, the spatial location of the mobile phone can be established. This is possible not only for latitude and longitude, but also for altitude.


Trilateration GPS
Via pixabay

The format used for transmitting signals emitted by satellites (the so called geosignals,) that are used for location purposes is quite important. These signals travel as microwaves, which are a type of wave of a frequency that is way higher (1,575.42 MHz for civilian purposes and 1,227.60 MHz for military purposes) than waves of the FM range. These move in a straight line, similarly to the waves generated in a microwave oven that we have in our homes.

However, what’s important in this case is that the data that is inside the packets that are sent from each satellite. Each packet has inside of them the time of the week as indicated by an atomic clock, as well as the state of the satellite. This way, the phone can check if the information is reliable.

Additionally, the packet indicates the week when the transmission occurred as well as the PRN code from said satellite, so that it can be received by the mobile receptor, which can be read by the software associated to their GPS.

Then, once the mobile receptor receives a satellite’s signal, the distance from which the satellite is located can be established. This way, the signal will be picked up by chance within the radius of an imaginary sphere that is around from said satellite. Then, after obtaining the signal of a second satellite, it can obtain the point where the imaginary spheres from both satellites are intersected. Finally, with a third satellite, the mobile phone can establish the synchronization discrepancies among the satellite clocks and the mobile phone to obtain an exact 3D position, after making precise mathematical calculations from the mobile phone’s processor.

Where did the Global positioning technology start?

As it tends to happen with a lot of the wonderful tools that we have in our digital era, the origin of GPS technology comes from the military. This one started by the name TRANSIT during the 60s. TRANSIT had been in use between 1964 and 1967. Said system was comprised of six satellites in low orbit. However, connection times of up to 15 minutes with one of the system’s satellites were required to be able to estimate the position.

Initially, being able to put reliable atomic clocks in space was a requirement. Then, the development of this technology reached a milestone when, in 1967, the Timation satellite was launched, showing evidence that being able to put good clocks into orbit was viable.

The 70s were witness of new advances in global positioning, but they were still used for military purposes. This way, during that time, there was an increase on the accuracy of the geosignals given by the satellites used for such purposes. Additionally, the North American Army and the Air Force’s agencies that had been working on the development of navigation systems where integrated during that time.

This way, NAVSTAR was born, which had been going through diverse development and refinement phases during the 80s and the 90s. Finally, its civilian use was shown on 1995 and, on 2009, the United States government offered the global positioning service to the International Civilian Aviation Organization.

The inclusion of GPS technology in smartphones occurred for the first time on 1999 with the Benefon Esc! phone model, but it wasn’t until the rise of the popularity of the smartphones that the technology became popular. This has caused a decrease in sales of classic GPS devices, which, in turn, have been integrated to mobile devices, such as cell phones and tablets, which now have them built-in.

How accurate are the global positioning systems in 2020?

The accuracy of positioning systems of fourth and fifth generation mobile devices (mainly phones and tablets) depend on the intersection of a series of systems, both online and offline, including more systems besides the GPS receptor.

These systems would the GPS itself, as well as the GSM communication from the mobile device, so that the geographical area where the mobile phone’s carrier is located could be determined. Also, the Wi-Fi networks where the phone would be connected would give out data to offer higher accuracy.

When the information of the physical location on the planet intersects with digital maps, both online and offline, then the user’s location in the world is displayed, and then it can be processed for a wide variety of uses, which go from car navigation to searching for significant others in nearby locations through apps made for that goal, such as, for instance, Tinder.

The accuracy of the location displayed by smartphones that use navigation systems via GPS is around five meters. However, in the future, this accuracy may increase, so that, in 2018, the location would be as accurate as 30 cm through the use of new processing mechanisms.

This increase in accuracy is achieved thanks to systems that distinguish between signals or geosignals that come directly from a satellite and the signals that are produced from the waves that bounce off buildings.

There are also location systems being developed to be used inside buildings. This type of systems is forecasted to be used a lot at a corporate level. This will surely increase the efficiency of corporate management, and will result in an increase in productivity of businesses.

The sky is not only full of stars

The globalization of our current world is causing users to have multiple services that provide the different apps available for cell phones. On Android’s case, there are plenty of them that are available for free on the Play Store.

The idea is that everyone has the possibility of using GPS from their cell phones on any place on Earth. To do this, besides using the North American system that originated this type of service, there are new systems that will help more people to use GPS.

Many countries have satellites that are used for global positioning. The North American system has 24 satellites in orbit. Russians also have a similar system known as GLONASS, While Europeans launched their own satellite system, which are collectively known by the name Galileo. This last one became operational during the month of December, 2016, and has higher accuracy than the North American one.

In this system’s case, only the devices that have an appropriate built-in circuitry will be connected automatically. Starting from fall 2016, some devices with this technology have appeared.

The Chinese have predicted that they will have a fully operating system of 30 satellites on the year 2020, known as Beidou, with a different mechanism than other positioning systems. However, devices with a specific set of hardware to be able to connect to systems different than the North American one are required.

Conclusions about global positioning

Technological advances that were initially used for military purposes frequently end up creating important applications for civilian purposes, such as the Internet and the global positioning system.

The global positioning technology is quickly changing our way of perceiving reality. Through it, the IT systems are absorbing more and more elements about the world in real-time. This results in applications (with functionalities that include navigation, social network, and searching significant others) are now able to offer a better perspective in the shape of virtual reality. Apps that encourage people to take photos of their current location are common.

Then, this image bank could become a reference point for other users, including a 360 degree perspective.

All of this could be sending information, without us noticing, to databases for future virtual reality systems, or even for virtual tourism. We cannot ignore the possibility that the data being sent to IT systems could be being used for artificial intelligence systems to offer in the near future even more alarming virtual experiences.

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