A tracking device is a piece of Applied Phlebotinum
that broadcasts its location, and is used to follow the individual or vehicle it's been secretly planted on. Occasionally the individual discovers the device and uses it to lead the trackers on a Wild Goose Chase
Tracking devices can also be intentionally used by characters on the same side to keep tabs on each other, so that if somebody gets kidnapped, his friends will immediately know where he is. Of course, a Genre Savvy
bad guy who happens to find
a tracking device used for this purpose could easily use it as a Red Herring
Most tracking or surveillance devices depicted in fiction are so small that they cannot include important components such as a power source, antenna, microphones, etc. This used to seem like magical tech back in the day, but as Technology Marches On
with the advent of mobile phones that allow tracking by cell tower, and USB Pen Drive-sized GPS trackers, extremely miniature tracking devices are rapidly becoming Truth in Television
. Indeed, any tracking device that isn't miniscule these days probably qualifies as an Incredibly Obvious Bug
Compare the Sub-Trope Tracking Chip
, when a tracking device is implanted.
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Anime & Manga
- Early in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vi Vid, after Hegemon Ingvalt walked away in apparent victory, the near-immobile Nove Nakajima contacts Subaru Nakajima and reveals that she planted a sensor on her during their battle, so they can track her down and capture her at any time they want.
- Both the heroes and villains use these in Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Finding or evading them are plot points in several episodes.
- Ai no Kusabi has "Pet Rings" which all have built-in tracers to track a pet's whereabouts. One pet in particular finds this out the hard way.
- Ghost in the Shell has tracking devices which can be fired out of pistols. In both the movie and the show, Togusa fires one out of his revolver to track a car.
- In the Cain Saga, Cain's earring works like this in a steampunky kind of way, being made of a special stone that causes a larger piece of it to resonate whenever in proximity.
- Hanaoka the butler from Sangatsu no Lion lets slip that he keeps track of Nikaidou through GPS before poorly covering up with an alternate explanation as to how he's able to find his young master so easily. Played entirely for laughs.
- Often used by Batman.
- Also commonly used by Spider-Man. It was a Spider-Man comic that led to the invention of electronic tagging.
- The Millennium Falcon gets one in Star Wars, leading the Death Star to the rebel base at Yavin.
- Jango Fett's ship also gets one on it in Episode II.
- Used to hilarious effect in The Naked Gun, where Nordberg fails to attach the tracking device, rolls down a hill, and ends up underneath Drebin's own car- "we're right on top of him now!"
- The Avengers (1998). Steed gives Mrs. Peel a set of boots with an implanted "micro-tag" (radio homing signal). He later uses it to locate and rescue her.
- Johnny Five from Short Circuit has a tracking device that he tosses into the bed of a passing pickup truck.
- In The Matrix, the three Agents implant a literal (robotic) bug in Neo's body that they plan to use to track him.
- Red Dawn (1984). The Soviets capture one of the American guerillas and force him to swallow the tracking device. Unfortunately the spetsnaz team they have following him gets ambushed, and their homing beacon points directly at the traitor.
- Brannigan (1975). The police plant a magnetically-attached bug on the vehicle of the mob lawyer used to make the ransom exchange, but he finds it and plants it on another vehicle while stopped in traffic. Unfortunately John Wayne has planted a second bug inside one of the bundles of ransom money.
- James Bond
- Bond plants one in Auric Goldfinger's Rolls-Royce in Goldfinger. Felix Leiter later homes in on the smaller one Bond is carrying to locate the OO agent.
- The Man with the Golden Gun. Mary Goodnight wears a homing device as a button on her clothing. MI6 uses it to locate her after Scaramanga kidnaps her.
- Never Say Never Again. Fatima Blush plants one on Bond so her electronically controlled sharks can home in on him.
- The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. There was apparently one of these on the Oscillation Overthruster (or possibly Penny Priddy), as Buckaroo uses a signal detector to find them inside Yoyodyne.
- Aliens. Corporal Hicks gives Ripley a wrist mounted tracking device. Ripley later gives it to Newt. Near the end Ripley uses the signal to find where Newt isonly to find it lying on the floor after being torn off accidentally or deliberately by the xenomorphs. Ripley breaks down in tears, but fortunately Newt is still close enough that Ripley hears her when she screams.
- Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol has the target being given papers impregnated with a unique radiation signature (in case he's smart enough to throw away everything else, they can still track him). The only problem is that Ethan Hunt needs to keep the target in visual range, which is nicely ironic when he ends up chasing the target through a zero-visibility dust storm in Dubai. Ethan uses the tracking device to manoeuvre his car into the path of the oncoming vehicle, leaping out moments before the cars crash into each other.
- Escape from New York has two of them.
- Snake is given a tracer. When he pushes a button his position can be tracked for 15 minutes.
- The President is wearing a vital signs bracelet that broadcasts a "sig pulse". Snake is given a device that can home in on the signal, showing direction and distance to the device.
- In The Andromeda Strain, (1971) the four scientists (Hall, Dutton, Leavitt and Stone) can be tracked by the first letter of their last name on the electronic diagram, anywhere in the Wildfire complex.
- By way of a translucent red stud on the back of Emmet's leg, The Lego Movie utilizes this trope. Early on in the film, Emmet gets shot in the back of the leg. He himself doesn't see exactly what he was shot with until somebody asks "What's on his ankle?" Cue Oh, Crap moment.
- In the James Caan film Thief, he finds a igarette pack-sized tracking device behind the bumper of his car. The Chicago police are following what they think is his car driving out of town to a robbery, but they're following a Greyhound bus bound for Des Moines, with the tracker in a package in the cargo hold.
- In The Best Offer, a tracking device is planted in the protagonist's car, so the caper team knew when he was approaching.
- In Unknown (2006), a tracker is planted in the bag that holds the ransom money, so Police could track down the kidnappers. They use a cell phone with a Viewer-Friendly Interface displaying the target as a red button. However, the kidnappers smelled a rat and dropped the bag underway.
- In The Dark Knight, Batman puts tracking devices in random bags of money in a vault and lets the Joker's gang rob it in an effort to find their hideout. They somehow figure it out, and take every bag except the ones with the tracking devices in them.
- Frank Herbert's Children of Dune. When Alia sends Buer Agarves on a diplomatic mission to Stilgar, she conceals a homing signal in the new boots she gives him so her forces can follow him and capture Stilgar.
- In the Vorkosigan Saga novel Komarr, Miles briefly thinks he'll be able to get a lead on the villains when they steal his Auditor's seal, which has a tracking device embedded in it. Unfortunately, they know about the device, and almost immediately flush the seal down the toilet to serve as a particularly messy Red Herring.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, Lazarus Long Time Travels to meet his family when he was a child. Due to a miscalculation, he winds up in 1917 instead of 1920, just in time for the United States to get into World War One. Prior to leaving, he was unknowingly implanted with a tracking device by his family of the future, which comes in really handy when he gets shot in battle and has to be rescued.
Live Action TV
- May be one of the most used devices in the series Alias.
- The title character of Chuck wears one in his wristwatch so (theoretically) his handlers can always find him.
- In the Leverage episode "The Stork Job", Hardison reveals when Parker goes off on her own that he put a GPS tracker in her shoes. It's implied that he keeps tabs on the entire team this way all the time. He also often uses the various magical earpieces that they have for this purpose as well. Fitting this trope those devices are sufficiently small that there is no way that they could ever really work.
- Often used on NCIS, for the agents themselves to be rescued or just followed, or suspects or criminals.
- Used on an episode of Scrubs so JD can track and avoid the Janitor.
- In addition to their primary purpose as Comm Links, communicators in Star Trek are used as locating devices. Plots frequently demand that they be removed or jammed.
- Used over and over again in Veronica Mars in order to track and find nearly anybody.
- As part of his release agreement with the FBI, Neal Caffrey of White Collar has to wear an ankle tracking bracelet at all times (until his 4-year term is up, anyway). He cannot leave a 2-mile radius of his home (which, fortunately for him, is in Manhattan) except with an FBI escort, and if he tries to remove it without authorization (occasionally given as part of an operation), it sends out a signal.
- Used in The City Hunter: Young-ju bugs the City Hunter during their first fight. Yun Sung later bugs the stolen 2 million dollars in Kim Jong-shik's house.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- The Initiative shoot Spike with a tracking device which Genre Savvy Xander recognizes because it blinks for no apparent reason. Well, maybe that comes in handy when tracking vampires in the dark.
- Willow's oft-used "locator spells."
- JAG: Used by Clayton Webb in his first dealing with Harm and Mac to track their car in "We The People". However, they're Genre Savvy enough to leave it.
- Extant: All the astronauts have one stuck to the roof of their mouth. It's supposed to be used to gain data on their vitals but it can also track locations.
- Once Upon a Time: Bo Peep, who was a warlord in the Enchanted Forest, "branded" her victims with magic, which allowed her to use her shepherd's crook to track her victims. In Storybrooke, David used the crook in an attempt to locate Anna; while he couldn't get a fix on her, the crook did register her heartbeat, indicating that Anna is still alive.
- Shadowrun had the AOD (Activate On Demand) tracking signal. It only transmitted when it received a specific coded signal, which meant it could not be detected by standard radio detection techniques except when it was actually transmitting.
- Victoriana RPG supplement Faulkner's Millinery and Miscellanea. One possible Complication (drawback) for a magical clockwork limb was a tracer device implanted in it, which allowed someone to know where you were at all times.
- Iron Crown Enterprises Cyberspace main rules.
- The Homing Device was a constantly broadcasting high frequency transmitter implanted in a living creature (such as a human being). It can only broadcast a few kilometers away.
- The Arm Sentry is a small device strapped to the arm of guests in corporate areas. It constantly broadcasts its position to the company security computer. If the wearer enters an area they're not authorized to be in, the computer sounds an alarm.
- The Tracer is a transmitting device that is either worn or implanted. They can be traced over great distances by ground-based or satellites. All Corporate and Government personnel have these implanted in their bodies so they can be recovered in case they're kidnapped or become lost.
- Franziska plants one of these on her incompetent detective partner Gumshoe in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All, much to Gumshoe's displeasure.
- In Mass Effect 2, after you acquire the Reaper IFF chip, it installs a virus into the Normandy's computer that broadcasts its current location. Which results in the kidnapping of all of your crew except Joker. Kinda makes the Paragon choice in the endgame (to destroy the Collector Base rather than reverse-engineer it) seem the right one: if a mere chip made by the Reapers could outsmart the best AI humans could produce, what would an entire base do?
- Mass Effect 3 has Miranda plant a tracer on Kai Leng on Sanctuary, leading Shepard directly to Cerberus's main base. The spoiler for 2 is also revealed to be fairly irrelevant. Even if blown up, enough of the base remains that Cerberus undertakes major salvage operations and some degree of indoctrination and so on happens anyway.
- Ghost Trick;: Cabanela fires a special bullet into Yomiel's body, which can be tracked by a modified pocket watch.
- In Secret Agent Barbie, Barbie has a gadget which is basically tracking perfume.
- Played for laughs in an episode of Jackie Chan Adventures. An episode that involves clones of the heroes has Captain Black place a tracking device on one of the Jackies. He starts bragging about it before the real Jackie points out that it's on him instead of the escaped clone.
- Also played for laughs in Invader Zim, where the "tracking device" turns out to be GIR clinging to the back of Dib's enormous head.
- 1973-74 Super Friends episode "The Planet Splitter". The Super Friends put microdot homing devices on the remaining 100+ carat diamonds so they can be tracked down after they're stolen. At the end of the episode, Wendy puts Wonder Dog on a diet, them puts a microdot homing device on one of his favorite steak bones so they can track it when he steals it.
- Also in SWAT Kats. Hard Drive and Dark Kat stole the Turbo Kat and used it to commit crimes and frame the heroes. They demanded several bags of money. Commander Feral hid a tracking device in one of them. The bad guys throw away a bag (presumably the one with the tracking device) and, using a device to impersonate T-Bone's voice, said "Nice try, Feral!"
- Kim Possible sometimes uses various kinds of trackers, including tracking powder (got in the vent system of the building).
- Space Ghost episode "Homing Device". Before the episode starts Jace puts the title homing device on Blip's collar so he and Jan can always find him. Blip stows away on the Phantom Cruiser when Space Ghost goes to surrender to Metallus, allowing Jan and Jace to follow them.
- Modern cellular phones have GPS receivers in them to provide locations during emergency calls. Some offer tracking services that allow account holders to keep track of their children, or track a lost or stolen phone.
- US vs. Jones resulted in a decision that, within the USA, use of such a device without a warrant may violate 4th amendment rights.