Using a Windows Mobile phone as a GPS tracker

October 26, 2010 · Posted in Tech, Transport 

As mentioned earlier, I recently upgraded from a Windows Mobile 6.1 HTC Diamond to an Android-powered HTC Desire. Aside from the dated OS/UI on the Diamond, it’s still a really capable gadget so I use it as a spare phone for the car. Given its new permanent home and the fact it has internal GPS, it seemed to me that it lends itself well to becoming a tracking device that could report its location in the event that the car is stolen. Here’s how I set about doing that.

First off, I assumed that this would be easy :-) and thought that someone would have written some, hopefully free, software that I could just install on the phone and that would be that. After some searching on the Internet, the program RemoteTracker (hosted at SourceForge) seemed to fit the bill. It’s open source and free to download. It also has lots of exciting commands you can send to the tracker phone by SMS like pop-up message boxes, lock phone, delete card contents, etc. and to return data such as location (natch), IP address, phone cell ID, call history. There are even ways to return this information by email and FTP too. All of which is great – the only problem was that I never got any commands to work! Now, I may have done something wrong (although I did read the manual pretty thoroughly), but in the end I, regrettably, had to give up and uninstall.

My next attempt was a program called MobileJustice (again SourceForge, hence again free and open source). The program appeared to be light on features, but then again at least it seemed to work. If you send a pre-configured passcode to the phone by SMS it will return the GPS coordinates by SMS. However, there is no Google Maps link (or similar) so you’ll need to type these into Google Maps manually to find the location which is fiddly to do on your mobile (although fine if you’re near a PC). It will also monitor for SIM card changes which could be handy if it’s really your phone you’re interested in tracking as most thieves will probably want to swap the SIM and sell it on. So MobileJustice was working fine for a few months, albeit it was always a little frustrating not to have a map link in the message you receive. There’s a thread about this in the forum, but the developer seems to have lost interest in developing the program further as he hasn’t replied to any threads since 2009-12-31. Then, a few weeks ago, the program stopped working for no apparent reason. I tried uninstalling it and reinstalling and deleting the config file, but still no joy. That meant the search for a replacement began.

I did some more Googling and managed to find the website LocateA. It looks like this software has been designed for couriers to use to help them pick up jobs while they’re out and about and manage their fleet – quite a clever idea actually. It’s free for anyone to use though and works over your phone’s data connection rather than SMS commands. It’s not really setup for use as a tracker, but could perform this function as you get a log-in to a control panel where you can see the position of any phone you set up and even see a GPS trail of where the phone has been too. The data usage worried me because I had put a pay-as-you-go SIM in the tracker phone, so every kB of data would cost me money, unlike my pay-monthly all-you-can-eat plan. However, I thought I’d give it a try anyway. I soon hit upon a problem though, which is reported here in the user forum. Basically, the software works fine on WinMo while the screen is on, but then stops reporting the GPS position when the screen turns off, which happens by default to save battery. The workaround seems to be to change the settings to keep the screen on all the time. This is probably fine if you’re a courier who has the phone sat in a holder and connected to power all day long and then off at night. However, for this application, I needed my phone to be ‘connected’ and reporting its position 24/7. I became a bit concerned about the effect on the phone of having the screen on all the time as I know that drains the battery pretty quickly and maybe would do the same to my car battery. Also my concerns about data usage were not misplaced as my £5 phone credit ran out after only a few days. I decided I needed a way of keeping the costs under closer control!

A few days later I was on the Barclays Bank online banking site as I needed to update my subscription to Kaspersky Internet Security. Barclays offer this free to customers using their online banking facility and I’ve taken advantage of this for the last couple of years. While doing this, I noticed that they now offer Kaspersky Mobile Security 9.0 for Windows Mobile and Symbian phones. I recalled a conversation I’d had with a Kaspersky representative at the 2008 InfoSec conference, in which he’d told me that their mobile security product has a feature to report the GPS location in the event of theft. At the time I didn’t want to pay the subscription charge – currently £19.99 per annum. However, the Barclays giveaway offer now made this an option. If you are a Barclays customer you can do this too: first you need to download the trial version and install the cab file on your phone. Follow the links from you online banking and you’ll find you need to validate your Barclays account in order to get an Activation Code to convert your free trial version to a full version.

The software itself is fairly easy to set up and the help files are good. The only thing that puzzled me to start with was how to actually request the GPS location from another phone. Turns out that all you need to type into the SMS is Find: {passcode} and send it! You’ll receive a text message in reply with the GPS coordinates (Lat/Long) but still no map link. For this you need to check the email account you used when setting up the Anti-Theft options. It will contain a Google Maps link that you can click on to take you directly to the exact location. The program also has other security features such as monitoring for SIM changes and remote data wipe which you may find useful.

The only drawback I’ve found with this solution is that, although the SMS you send to the tracker phone is included in your regular mobile plan, the SMS that the tracker phone replies with is sent first to Kaspersky via the Russian network MTS! I know they are a Russian company, but it would be nice if they could localise their software to take advantage of a UK mobile number. On my current pay-as-you-go SIM (Asda, chosen as it’s one of the cheapest for UK texts) this SMS costs 24p :-( Hence I started a search for a PAYG SIM with lower charges for international texting. You can see the progress of this on a thread I started over on the MoneySavingExpert forum. My latest thinking on this is to get a T-Mobile PAYG SIM with free International Pass which means 15p per text to Russia. I can live with that given that I won’t be using it particularly often, or so I hope!

So there you go – something that I thought would be simple was rather less so, but I have a workable solution now. I leave the phone constantly plugged in to the power socket in the boot of the car. This keeps it out of sight of passing phone thiefs and, hopefully, not instantly discoverable to a car thief who drives/tows away the vehicle. Initially I worried that this may cause the car battery to drain and make starting difficult. However, I believe the C-Max has circuitry to protect the main battery and keep sufficient charge to start the engine. The other concern is the effect on the mobile phone battery. Having done some research, it seems that the batteries capacity may diminish over time (more so than discharging then recharging in ‘normal’ use). There may also be problems through the winter (for phone and/or battery), as temperatures may drop below zero for much of the day. I’ll report back here if I find any such issues.†

I’m really pleased to have found three new uses for an old gadget. First, I have a spare ‘car’ phone which is always fully charged – handy if the car breaks down and the driver has no mobile (or no battery left on the mobile) with them. Second, I had TomTom satnav software on the phone and it’s handy to still be able to use this. I now have Google Navigator on my HTC Desire, but others who drive the car don’t, so this has been a big plus. Third, I have a way to potentially track down the car should it be stolen. It may not be quite as fancy as some tracker devices on the market, but for the cost it’s not a bad solution.

† This winter brought us temperatures down to -10C, but this didn’t really seem to affect the phone (although sometimes the car was in the garage where the temperature was probably only down to -3Cish). However, I can confirm that the constant charging diminishes the lifetime of the battery. I had to discard the first battery (it was lasting <1 hour off charge) within 3 months and guess I'll have to continue at that rate, i.e. around four batteries per year. However, these can be bought on eBay for £2-3 each so, ignoring the environmental cost, this is also not too expensive.


3 Responses to “Using a Windows Mobile phone as a GPS tracker”

  1. BuraX on July 15th, 2012 18:38

    Thanks for this article! I found it very informative and useful.
    I’ve managed to get the RemoteTracker working on my elderly E-TEN M700 with WM6. Right now I’m waiting for my car to be manufactured hopefully this month and will try to install&hide the phone somewhere in the car where there is enough GPS signal and the 12V socket (the boot, perhaps). Also I’m wondering how much standby power it will need with/without the phone battery connected (will measure that after the installation).

    Also a useful program for the WM6 would be one that reads signals from the car electronic installation (like the interier lights that switch on when the car is opened) or some other extern sensors (movement, temperature, tilt, etc.) and sends an alert SMS when some of the sensors fires an alarm. If anyone has any info about such a program (or knows a technique to develop it) please comment here also :)

  2. spinage on July 15th, 2012 19:26

    Thanks, glad it was helpful! I’d be interested to know what readings you get for power draw from the phone. I worried about this before installation, but never had any problems with the car battery getting too low.
    An app like the one you suggest would be excellent, wouldn’t it?

  3. BuraX on September 8th, 2012 18:27

    So I’ve managed to try this is my new car, but didn’t find any place there that’s got enough GPS signal and is hidden in any way. Basically the only place where it functions properly is on the top of the dashboard. Unfortunately, the phone doesn’t have an external antenna slot so I’ll have to come up with a completely different solution I think..