Geolocating Users via Text Messages

Posted 7/28/2023

A recent research paper, Freaky Leaky SMS: Extracting User Locations by Analyzing SMS Timings (PDF), purports to geolocate phone numbers by texting them and analyzing response times. This is creepy, interesting, and hopefully a warning that can perhaps help phone companies to better protect their customers’ privacy in the future. Today I’m writing up a short summary, context, and some of my thoughts about the study. The original paper is intended for computer security and machine learning scientists, but I intend to write for a broader audience in this post.

The Concept

When Alice sends Bob a text message, Bob’s phone sends back an acknowledgement automatically - “I received your text!” If Alice’s phone doesn’t receive that acknowledgement before a timeout, Alice gets a “Failed to deliver text” error.

If Alice is standing next to Bob in Chicago, that text should be delivered quickly, and the acknowledgement should arrive almost instantly. If Alice is in Chicago and Bob is in Hong Kong, it should take slightly longer for the round-trip text message and acknowledgement.

So, if the delay before a text acknowledgement correlates with the distance between the phones, can we text Bob from three different phones, and by analyzing the delays, triangulate his position? What level of precision can we obtain when tracking Bob in this way?

The Limitations

In reality, text message delays will be messy. If Alice’s texts travel through a telecommunications hub in Chicago, then there may be a delay related to the amount of congestion on that hub. If there are multiple paths between Alice and Bob across telecommunications equipment, then each path may incur a different delay. Finally, the routes of telecommunications equipment may not take birds-eye-view shortest paths between locations. For example, if Alice and Bob are on opposite sides of a mountain range, the phone switches connecting them may divert around the mountains or through a pass, rather than directly over.

However, “messy” does not mean random or uncorrelated. If we text Bob enough times from enough phones, and apply some kind of noise reduction (maybe taking the median delay from each test-phone?), we may be able to overcome these barriers and roughly identify Bob’s location.

The Study

The researchers set up a controlled experiment: they select 34 locations across Europe, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates, and place a phone at each. They assign three of these locations as “senders” and all 34 as “receivers.”

To gather training data, they send around 155K text messages, in short bursts every hour over the course of three days. This provides a baseline of round-trip texting time from the three senders to the 34 receivers during every time of day (and therefore, hopefully, across a variety of network congestion levels).

For testing, the researchers can text a phone number from their three senders, compare the acknowledgement times to their training data, and predict which of the 34 locations a target phone is at. The researchers compare the test and training data using a ‘multilayer perceptron’, but the specific machine learning model isn’t critical here. I’m curious whether a much simpler method, like k-nearest-neighbors or a decision-tree, might perform adequately, but that’s a side tangent.

The heart of the research paper consists of two results, in sections 5.1 and 5.2. First, they try to distinguish whether a target is ‘domestic’ or ‘abroad.’ For example, the sensors in the UAE can tell whether a phone number is also at one of the locations in the UAE with 96% accuracy. This is analogous to our starting example of distinguishing between a Chicago-Chicago text and a Chicago-Hong-Kong text, and is relatively easy, but a good baseline. They try distinguishing ‘domestic’ and ‘abroad’ phones from a variety of locations, and retain high accuracy so long as the two countries are far apart. Accuracy drops to between 75 and 62% accuracy when both the sensor and target are in nearby European countries, where timing differences will be much smaller. Still better than random guessing, but no longer extremely reliable.

Next, the researchers pivot to distinguishing between multiple target locations in a single country - more challenging both because the response times will be much closer, and because they must now predict from among four or more options rather than a simple “domestic” and “abroad”. Accuracy varies between countries and the distances between target locations, but generally, the technique ranges between 63% and 98% accurate.

The rest of the paper has some auxiliary results, like how stable the classifier accuracy is over time as congestion patterns change, how different phones have slightly different SMS acknowledgement delays, and how well the classifier functions if the target individual travels between locations. There’s also some good discussion on the cause of errors in the classifier, and comparisons to other types of SMS attacks.


These results are impressive, but it’s important to remember that they are distinguishing only between subsets of 34 predefined locations. This study is a far cry from “enter any phone number and get a latitude and longitude,” but clearly there’s a lot of signal in the SMS acknowledgement delay times.

So what can be done to fix this privacy leak? Unfortunately, I don’t see any easy answers. Phones must return SMS acknowledgements, or we’d never know if a text message was delivered successfully. Without acknowledgements, if someone’s phone battery dies, or they put it in airplane mode, or lose service while driving through a tunnel, text messages to them would disappear into the void.

Phones could add a random delay before sending an acknowledgement - or the telecommunications provider could add such a delay on their end. This seems appealing, but the delay would have to be short - wait too long to send an acknowledgement, and the other phones will time out and report that the text failed to deliver. If you add a short delay, chosen from, say, a uniform or normal distribution, then sending several texts and taking the median delay will ‘de-noise’ the acknowledgement time.

Right now there are two prominent “defenses” against this kind of attack. The first is that it’s a complicated mess to pull off. To generalize from the controlled test in the paper to finding the geolocation of any phone would require more ‘sending’ phones, lots more receiving phones for calibration, and a ton of training data, not to mention a data scientist to build a classifier around that data. The second is that the attack is “loud:” texting a target repeatedly to measure response times will bombard them with text messages. This doesn’t prevent the attack from functioning, but at least the victim receives some indication that something weird is happening to them. There is a type of diagnostic SMS ping called a silent SMS that does not notify the user, but these diagnostic messages can only be sent by a phone company, and are intended for things like confirming reception between a cell phone and tower.

Overall, a great paper on a disturbing topic. I often find side-channel timing attacks intriguing; the researchers haven’t identified a ‘bug’ exactly, the phone network is functioning exactly as intended, but this is a highly undesired consequence of acknowledgement messages, and a perhaps unavoidable information leak if we’re going to provide acknowledgement at all.