Skip to Content

Feds say phone tracking data is evidence in Capitol riot charges

Remaining Ad Time Ad - 00:00
google location tracking
A cybersecurity expert told 27 News Google frequently collects location data for all Android phones.

MADISON (WKOW) -- The FBI said location tracking data from Google places a Wisconsin man in the U.S. Capitol and on Capitol grounds during the January 6 insurrection. Cybersecurity experts say tech companies are tracking everyone.

"All of your electronic devices can and probably do monitor your location," Jack Koziol, the CEO and founder of the cybersecurity education firm Infosec Institute, said. "You should be very conscious of which companies and which entities you are allowing your data to be shared with."

However, Koziol said consumers don't always have the option to not share data with some companies.

He said phone manufacturers like Apple and Google often collect location data for their devices almost continuously.

"If GPS is disabled or turned off, Google knows where certain Wi-Fi networks are located," he said. "As your phone passes by those Wi-Fi networks, that will send that information to Google. The last method is Bluetooth. So if you're within range of other phones that have Bluetooth on it, which is quite a lot. it'll send that information back to Google."

He said this is how the tech giant had the location data of Abram Markofski. Koziol said Markofski's Android phone was pinging its location back to Google through a network of GPS satellites, Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth connections.

UW-Madison Information School professor and cybersecurity expert Dorothea Salo said that tracking system produces fairly accurate results.

"You should assume that you can be tracked to about 50 yards from where you are, and many methods are far more accurate than that," she said.

In a statement of facts, the FBI said some Google tracking can locate someone within 10 meters of their actual location.

The FBI said Google's tracking data shows Markofski's phone was in areas "that are at least partially within the U.S. Capitol Building" during the insurrection. The data also matches photos the FBI said show Markofski in the building.

But Koziol and Salo warn tracking data isn't only useful for law enforcement agencies. They said advertisers and data broker companies want location tracking data for the public because it's good for their bottom line.

"It is very, very saleable," Salo said. "A lot of app developers in general are notorious for including location tracking that the app does not need because the data can be sold. So, it's part of their business model."

With apps' location tracking, consumers have a bit more control over what information they share.

"Immediately check your mobile settings," Salo said. "You can turn location tracking off, in general, or for a number of apps, you can tell the app 'no, you cannot track me.'"

Koziol said many apps will add convenient features to entice you to share your location. For instance, weather apps will show you real-time information for your exact location.

However, he said he doesn't think those benefits are worth the cost of sharing so much personal information.

"To the consumer, there's very little benefit to those kinds of things like letting the weather app track where you are," he said. "It's pretty easy to type in your zip code."

Salo said people should think about the bigger picture when considering how many companies they let access their location data. She said as more apps and companies track specific details, a "pretty startlingly complete" digital image forms.

"Imagine that being connected up with your credit information, your employment history, anything that is in the court system about you, your student history," she said. "It's a little scary, at least for me."

Author Profile Photo

Caroline Dade

Reporter/Multimedia Journalist, 27 News

Skip to content