You can be tracked via your IMEI, IMSI and by extension, your phone number
The IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) and the IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) are unique numbers created by cell phone manufacturers and cell phone operators.
The IMEI is tied directly to the phone you are using. This number is known and tracked by the cell phone operators and known by the manufacturers. Every time your phone connects to the mobile network, it will register the IMEI on the network along with the IMSI (if a SIM card is inserted but that is not even needed). It is also used by many applications (Banking apps abusing the phone permission on Android for instance) and smartphone Operating Systems (Android/IOS) for identification of the device. It is possible but difficult (and not illegal in many jurisdictions) to change the IMEI on a phone but it is probably easier and cheaper to just find and buy some old (working) Burner phone for a few Euros (this guide is for Germany remember) at a flea market or some random small shop.
The IMSI is tied directly to the mobile subscription or pre-paid plan you are using and is tied to your phone number by your mobile provider. The IMSI is hardcoded directly on the SIM card and cannot be changed. Remember that every time your phone connects to the mobile network, it will also register the IMSI on the network along with the IMEI. Like the IMEI, the IMSI is also being used by some applications and smartphone Operating systems for identification and is being tracked. Some countries in the EU for instance maintain a database of IMEI/IMSI associations for easy querying by Law Enforcement.
Today, giving away your (real) phone number is the same or better than giving away your Social Security number/Passport ID/National ID.
The IMEI and IMSI can be traced back to you in at least six ways:
- The mobile operator subscriber logs will usually store the IMEI along with the IMSI and their subscriber information database. If you use a prepaid anonymous SIM (anonymous IMSI but with a known IMEI), they could see this cell belongs to you if you used that cell phone before with a different SIM card (different anonymous IMSI but same known IMEI).
- The mobile operator antenna logs will conveniently keep a log of which IMEI and IMSI also keep some connection data. They know and log for instance that a phone with this IMEI/IMSI combination connected to a set of Mobile antennas and how powerful the signal to each of those antennas were allowing easy triangulation/geolocation of the signal. They also know which other phones (your real one for instance) connected at the same time to the same antennas with the same signal which would make it possible to know precisely that this “burner phone” was always connected at the same place/time than this other “known phone” which shows up every time the burner phone is being used. This information can be used by various third parties to geolocate/track you quite precisely.
- The manufacturer of the Phone can trace back the sale of the phone using the IMEI if that phone was bought in a non-anonymous way. Indeed, they will have logs of each phone sale (including serial number and IMEI), to which shop/person to whom it was sold. And if you are using a phone that you bought online (or from someone that knows you). It can be traced to you using that information. Even if they do not find you on CCTV and you bought the phone using cash, they can still find what other phone (your real one in your pocket) was there (in that shop) at that time/date by using the antenna logs.
- The IMSI alone can be used to find you as well because most countries now require customers to provide an ID when buying a SIM card (subscription or pre-paid). The IMSI is then tied to the identity of the buyer of the card. In the countries where the SIM can still be bought with cash (like the UK), they still know where (which shop) it was bought and when. This information can then be used to retrieve information from the shop itself (such as CCTV footage as for the IMEI case). Or again the antenna logs can also be used to figure out which other phone was there at the moment of the sale.
- The smartphone OS makers (Google/Apple for Android/IOs) also keep logs of IMEI/IMSI identifications tied to Google/Apple accounts and which user has been using them. They too can trace back the history of the phone and to which accounts it was tied in the past.
- Government agencies around the world interested in your phone number can and do use special devices called “IMSI catchers” like the Stingray or more recently the Nyxcell. These devices can impersonate (to spoof) a cell phone Antenna and force a specific IMSI (your phone) to connect to it to access the cell network.
- Once they do, they will be able to use various MITM (Man-In-The-Middle Attacks) that will allow them to:
- Tap your phone (voice calls and SMS).
- Sniff and examine your data traffic.
- Impersonate your phone number without controlling your phone.
For these reasons, it is crucial to get dedicated an anonymous phone number and/or an anonymous burner phone with an anonymous pre-paid sim card that is not tied to you in any way (past or present) for conducting sensitive activities (See more practical guidance in Getting an anonymous Phone number section).
While there are some smartphones manufacturers like Purism with their Librem series who claim to have your privacy in mind, they still do not allow IMEI randomization which I believe is a key anti-tracking feature that should be provided by such manufacturers. While this measure will not prevent IMSI tracking within the SIM card, it would at least allow you to keep the same “burner phone” and only switch SIM cards instead of having to switch both for privacy.
Source: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Online Anonymity, written by AnonyPla © CC BY-NC 4.0