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Aside from the easy cases like those near WIFI hubs, and so on, the precision to which mobile devices can normally be located is to within the nearest cell tower's range.
By scanning a microwave beam of the device's communication frequency over the area it is expected to be operating, one
can interfere with its signal reception. When TCP/IP traffic is disrupted, the TCP protocol tries to recover the lost data packets --- a process which can potentially be detected. By monitoring traffic through the nearest routers, as the scanning is performed, one can tell when the beam is directed toward the device of interest.
Since initially, one might only know the general area the device is operating --- perhaps only the country or ocean --- one would begin with a very wide beam and then decrease its diameter gradually based on the network feedback.
Edited Sep 23, 2016
||Before anyone tries this, let me remind you all that
jamming is illegal in many jurisdictions. Good idea though. I
wouldn't be surprised to hear of surveillance/espionage
agencies using it.
||could you "un celeron" a microprocessor at a distance to make it unwittingly be more effective momentarily? or swap out flash or html 5 with an adblock so the device works better from afar. The agent or agency could even get permission from a certain group of advertisers in advance to change their backgrounds or video velocity.
||with something that might exist called packet spoofing you could swap out tiny amounts of advertising to wiggle the IP stream, scan (like sequential at all devices) to find who is using what browser and content from a distance possibly. possibly not.
If I understand you, and possibly I don't, then you're suggesting that the processor could be made to emit unique patterns in its data stream to help identify it? The original idea was that one would already know the identity of the device's operator, and be able to access his internet account.
That just made me think though, that it could be just as helpful to use the method in reverse: If one knows the location of someone operating a mobile device, but doesn't know who...
Perhaps it could be used to do both though. I hadn't thought of that.