Geolocation of mobile phones in the GSM network

As user of mobile phones we are used to have an almost 100% coverage for phone calls (not for data though) and the user-experience is absolutely seamless in most urban and sub-urban areas in Europe and most other countries. Moving around in trains and cars we cant sense the hand-over in the background of the GSM (2G, GPRS, EDGE), UMTS (3G), LTE (4G) network passing on our connection between the BTS ( base transceiver station). As regular user we dont have an idea about the number and location of cell towers around us, some towers or antennas are mounted on very obvious structures (antennas on towers), some are almost hidden. Though the GSM antennas can have a range of up to 35km (flat plane vs less than 5km in hilly areas), we have much higher density of cells in the urban area with antennas almost every few 100 metres or less. There are a lot of parameters influencing the infrastructure and its layout at a certain place, I wont dive into the details of if, you can get some info on the reference sites listed at the end of the article.

Rather approaching this topic hands-on, I was curious about the information that I can retrieve with Android about the active cells, its location and ultimately about the information the network operator (or other interested parties) collects about one. We might disable the GPS function of a phone to stop apps to collect our whereabouts, giving apps access to the phone state still gives a coarse location profile.

Usually phones dont reveal any network information other than the network operator but with the help of some regular Android methods of the TelephonyManager and GsmCellLocation class we get the crucial information.

The key info we are looking for is

  • MCC – Mobile Country Code
  • MNC – Mobile Network Code
  • LAC – Location Area Code
  • CELLID – The ID of the cell

Only the combination of the above 4 values is unique and can identify the location. You can look at a directory of MCC codes at Wikipedia, but there is no list of of LAC and CELLID codes published by the provider. But in the era of the “crowd” there is a collaborative community collecting the measurements of cellphones and putting them into a DB (CC-BY-SA 3.0). At  opencellid.org you can both retrieve information about cell towers as well download the complete DB.

OpenCellID.org - cell info

OpenCellID.org – cell info

I was curious how often we change the cell and what geo information I could retrieve from this, respectively build a geo profile of myself moving around. I build an app the listens to the currently active cell, lists it up on the screen and logs it into a csv files, and optionally gives an acoustic notification (beep) every time cell has changed.

MyCellDroid Beta App

MyCellDroid Beta App

Quite surprising, during one of the first tests, driving a 100km distance along the highway, both rural and suburban area, I passed through more than 80 cells !

Relevant Android methods

TelephonyManager telephonyManager = (TelephonyManager) this.getSystemService(Context.TELEPHONY_SERVICE);
mcc = telephonyManager.getNetworkOperator().substring(0, 3);
mnc = telephonyManager.getNetworkOperator().substring(3);
operator = telephonyManager.getNetworkOperatorName();

GsmCellLocation location = (GsmCellLocation) telephonyManager.getCellLocation();
lac = location.getLac();
cellid = location.getCid();

Be aware of the permissions required

 <uses-permission android:name="android.permission.READ_PHONE_STATE" />
 <uses-permission android:name="android.permission.ACCESS_COARSE_LOCATION" />

A extra note about Android 6.x+ development, Google changed massively the permission concept and apps require an additional confirmation of the required permissions (for so-called dangerous permissions) during runtime, this has to be implemented specifically, otherwise your application which runs on earlier Android versions will crash. I will share the relevant implementation in an upcoming entry.

Note for Samsung Phones: The function to get information about the nearby cells is not supported by Samsung phones

List<NeighboringCellInfo> neighborCells = telephonyManager.getNeighboringCellInfo();

This list will all be null on Samsung phones. You only can retrieve information about the currently connected cell.

I will try to make some more sense out of the collected data and see how fine-grain the collected data reveals my location.

Btw, there are dozens of similar apps in the Playstore and some even report back collected data to improve and build up the opencellid project database.

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_site
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Base_transceiver_station
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sector_antenna
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellular_network
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_country_code
  6. https://developer.android.com/reference/android/telephony/NeighboringCellInfo.html
  7. https://developer.android.com/reference/android/telephony/TelephonyManager.html
  8. https://developer.android.com/reference/android/telephony/gsm/GsmCellLocation.html
  9. https://developer.android.com/guide/topics/security/permissions.html

Exploring a SQLite Database on Android

or “How to read SQLite DB from a desktop”

SQLite is the relational, embedded, ACID compliant database that comes with Android. Due to this fact it is certainly the most deployed DB engine on this planet. In case your application need to have CRUD features for local persisted data and the complexity level is beyond a simple text file, you have to consider it.

A challenge is to look into the (raw) DB from your desktop (if you dont want to build and integrate a DB viewer into your app). As Android apps store databases into their respective /data subfolder and if you don’t have a rooted phone, you cant look inside this folder.

I am not aware of any tool that can open a connection to the DB remotely, so the best way is to copy the DB file into the accessible SD card (or whatever the phone and its manufacturer considers as SD card, even the internal memory mounted as SD card), download it to your desktop and open it with a tool like the SQLite DB Browser.

Let’s put some sourcecode here as reference

Create a simple demo DB

No bells and whistles, no helper classes, etc. just the most simple way to create DB and a table.

 
    private void createDB() {
        SQLiteDatabase sampleDB = this.openOrCreateDatabase("MYDEMODB", MODE_PRIVATE, null);
        sampleDB.execSQL("CREATE TABLE IF NOT EXISTS MYTABLE (Last VARCHAR, First VARCHAR, Role VARCHAR);");
        sampleDB.execSQL("INSERT INTO MYTABLE Values ('Smith','John','CEO');");
        sampleDB.execSQL("INSERT INTO MYTABLE Values ('Thomson','Allan','CTO');");
        sampleDB.close();
    }

Copy the DB to your SD card

 
    private void exportDB() {
        File mySd = Environment.getExternalStorageDirectory();
        File myData = Environment.getDataDirectory();

        FileChannel src = null;
        FileChannel des = null;
        String currentDBPath = "/data/" + getApplicationContext().getPackageName() + "/databases/MYDEMODB";
        String exportDBPath = "MYDEMODB";

        File currentDB = new File(myData, currentDBPath);
        File backupDB = new File(mySd, exportDBPath);
        try {
            src = new FileInputStream(currentDB).getChannel();
            des = new FileOutputStream(backupDB).getChannel();
            des.transferFrom(src, 0, src.size());
            src.close();
            des.close();
        } catch (IOException e) {
            e.printStackTrace();
        }
    }

After download to your local drive you can use the SQLite Browser to open the file. Very useful data debugging or for apps that collect data and you can’t implement an upload of the data to a server via the internet connection.

SQLite DB Browser

SQLite DB Browser (Structure View)

 

SQLite DB Browser

SQLite DB Browser (Data View)

About Google Play formerly known as Android Market

I looked at some statistics last time in 2011, almost a 4 years back. Interesting to observe the changes and the evolution.

You can find the facts at AppBrain (http://www.appbrain.com/stats)

From ~175.000 applications in 2011 the number passed 1,5 million in February 2015. Surprisingly the number of apps with in-app billing is only 108.000. It feels like almost any application comes with this “feature”, pretty much every serious game.

I also logged into the developers console again, just remembered I published  some simple apps in 2011 to learn about the physics of the appstore.

Developer Console

Developer Console

Interesting enough they were downloaded 700+ and 200+ times. Wonder what figures this experiment would render when I start it again.

Continue reading

Connecting Samsung S3 S5 to Ubuntu for debugging Android Apps

Some things did not change since the early coding days with Linux and Android Phones , you still need to tinker with system files to allow USB access to the phone. Without the below steps you get “no permission” and offline errors in the Android Device Monitor.

Android Phone Settings

  1. Out-of-the-box the phone does not allow debugging. You need to find the developer options under phone settings and specifically allow USB debugging.

    Debug Options

    Debug Options

Ubuntu Settings Continue reading

Android Development Restarted

It has been quite a while since I touched an Android phone the last time for code projects. I got in contact first time with an Android phone during an open source conference in 2008 in Sydney when I met Chris DiBona (Director of Open Source at Google). Announcing the SDK 1.0. Soon after I got the G1, aka HTC Dream phone which was the first Android phone available. I could not even imagine this platform would be so widespread adopted and pushed in the years to come. I was even thinking about the investment that time, spending a few hundred dollars on a phone that might be just a experiment. In 2010 I also bought the Nexus One.

Anyway I created some apps for personal use, experimented with the apps market but due to other development and work focus lost it out of sight and just remained normal Android user.

Now my interest returned, at least to update my knowledge about this technology. Today things are becoming a bit easier (IDE, documentation) but also more complex, mainly due to the massive range of devices and manufacturers which makes screen design quite challenging, but also to security concerns as more spam and junk apps are around, users are no longer so flexible with the app security settings.

Coding becomes more convenient, now Android got its own IDE, the Android Studio. After an initial download and subsequent additional downloads of required packages you can start with your projects straight away.

With Ubuntu just just download the linux package, make sure you have a JDK installed, and execute the studio.sh shellscript in the bin folder.

Android Studio

Android Studio

FB aquires WhatsApp – Bye and Thanks for the Fish

WhatsApp known for its massive security issues, still used by millions of people as a free replacement of SMS and MMS, was acquired by FB, one (maybe the) biggest data harvester in the internet. I dont use FB, the acquisition is a reason to finally move on to another more secure communication tool: Threema  (Made in Switzerland app with end-to-end encryption). Hope they wont sell privacy for money. Please help to spread the word.

It is NOT free, but is time to understand FREE comes at a price !