Can an iPad that's been turned off be tracked?
March 4, 2014 9:39 AM   Subscribe

My company recently issued iPads to my colleagues and me. Most of us are pretty happy about it, because, among other things, they will replace a lot of paper we had to lug around. There is a vocal minority, however, that fears the iPads will allow the company to track us, even when they're turned off.

The iPads include a Mobile Device Manager, in this case Mobile Iron, which allows the company to issue updates and keep certain proprietary software up to date. Some of the more paranoid among us have taken to emailing dire warnings that the iPads will allow the company to track our whereabouts and usage, even when they're powered down. A Google search turns up nothing about this either way, perhaps because it's such a clumsy search to find the right words for.

I wouldn't normally pay much attention to the lunatic fringe, but I'm in a position where many people ask me if the tracking allegations are true. Before I condemn the "tracking" faction as tin-foil hat wackos, I'd like to know for sure.

My response up to this point has been, "No. An unpowered device has no way to broadcast it's position, or to respond to interrogations." But lately I've been wondering: Is it possible for a mobile device to remain partially powered when ostensibly turned off, similar to the old "instant-on" TV's which maintained a very low power state as long as they were plugged in? Could such a low-power state allow the device to be awakened, or otherwise powered up?

Note, this is not a question about the various settings on the iPad that allow for privacy, location services, and restrictions. I'm intimately familiar with those. I simply want to know if the folks who are alleging nefarious tracking capabilities for an unpowered device are being silly.
posted by dinger to Technology (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are the iPads WifI-only or 3g? If they're wifi only then the devices would only be able to "phone home" if they were in range of a wifi connection.

In the end, it doesn't matter whether they're being silly or not, for several reasons.

1. It doesn't matter what factual data you present to the tin-foil-hatters; they will not believe you.

2. The iPads have already been issued with (I assume) rules and policies about how they are supposed to be used, so there's no need for end-user buy-in.

3. Even if it's possible for an iPad that is powered down to phone home with location data, it only matters if someone is planning to use it. If your company is not planning to use that data, there's no issue.

I think that you should put the onus back on the tinfoil hatters. Ask them to provide a source for their concerns and give it no time until they do.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:47 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]

Faraday bag should nip any concerns in the bud!
posted by Captain Chesapeake at 9:47 AM on March 4 [11 favorites]

Seeing as this piece of news came out today, it's plausible but not probable that the iPad is trackable after powering off.
posted by deezil at 9:56 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]

There is no way for you to prove that it cannot and does not happen, either in realtime, or queuing up surveillance data to send home when a connection is re-established.

Captain Chesapeake has it. The immutable laws of physics will prevent not only outgoing but incoming radio data. You can only say, "Not as far as I am aware. If you have concerns you can always use a Faraday bag."

(Of course this doesn't prevent surreptitious use of the camera and microphone)
posted by rocketpup at 9:59 AM on March 4

It is easy for them to track you when it is turned on. You don't even need special software for this as Apple provides a Find My iPhone feature.

Allegedly the National Security Agency can track some mobile phones even when they are turned off ("NSA Can Reportedly Track Phones Even When They're Turned Off", Slate). Unless your company is a defense contractor, it seems unlikely they would have the resources and ability to do this. It's not something I would worry about.
posted by grouse at 9:59 AM on March 4

Oh, deezil FTW. Apparently you need an opaque, sound proof Faraday bag with onboard shock absorbers and a random magnetic field generator.
posted by rocketpup at 10:02 AM on March 4

Important to note: off is all the way off. Like holding down the power button and doing the swipe thing off. Most people never truly turn their ipads off.
posted by the jam at 10:16 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]

Seeing as this piece of news came out today, it's plausible but not probable that the iPad is trackable after powering off.

One should note that that article is talking about "tracking your movements" in the sense of "how much you're moving" not in the sense of "where you are going." It's recording accelerometer data to tell you how many steps you've taken--not what direction you took those steps in or whether you were taking them in the mall or at the beach or in the headquarters of your company's rivals.
posted by yoink at 10:45 AM on March 4

Even if the iPad does afford the ability to be tracked when off, Apple certainly does not advertise or expose that ability to enterprise clients, meaning your company would have to devote an implausibly large amount of resources to rolling their own employee-tracking solution in addition to whatever the above-board deployment of these devices is costing them.
posted by invitapriore at 10:57 AM on March 4

Important to note: off is all the way off. Like holding down the power button and doing the swipe thing off. Most people never truly turn their ipads off.

Also important to note: this isn't mechanically off. There is, in theory, nothing to stop a company installing software that makes it look like the device is off when it is not. Reportedly, intelligence agencies use just this capability to bug cell phones.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:44 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]

Seeing as this piece of news came out today, it's plausible but not probable that the iPad is trackable after powering off.

But this isn't "tracking" in the same sense the OP means. My understanding of that article is that the iPhone 5 is capable of acting as a glorified pedometer while the battery is dead, and not that it's tracking you in the sense that it can determine and record your location by sending and receiving data. Basically, it can use its motion sensor to detect that that it is being wiggled around in a certain way, and interprets that into a number of paces walked. Could be bad news if your employer is feeding those data into some kind of draconian employee wellness monitoring program, but not exactly Big Brother.

Right? Right??!??
posted by pullayup at 2:49 PM on March 4

If someone wants a really cheap solution to this for even the super-paranoid, the foil-lined "insulated" freezer bags from the freezer aisle of a grocery store meant for taking home ice cream, etc... are well, plasticized foil lined.

They're ipad sized faraday bags for $3.99 instead of $30.

Someone go down to the local QFC/kroger/whatever and grab a stack of those.

Problem solved.

run a ping on your router continuously from the ipad. slide it into the bag, count to 30, pull it out.

This should decisively prove that no data can make it in or out of these bags. And they're super cheap to replace if lost or damaged, and also make it not look like you're carrying around an expensive piece of gear, just a hot sandwich or some chocolates or a frozen desert or something.

I was going to suggest turning off location services in settings, but the tape-over-camera crowd won't believe that. Physically blocking any possible signal however...
posted by emptythought at 9:55 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]

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