Can smartphones be pinged to aid in locating criminals?

What was once a thing only seen in movies is quickly becoming a reality. You’ve probably watched a good chase scene in which the cops have triangulated the location of a key suspect and commence tracking the individual down. Or, better yet, maybe you watched an elusive agent trying to escape the grips of someone hot on their trails by busting his smartphone to pieces. While you’re likely not in either of these situations, it isn’t too far fetched that your cell phone could be used to track you down, specifically by the police department. So, how does it work, and is it actually legal? Consider a few of the details surrounding the practice and decide for yourself.

How Does Pinging a Smartphone Work?

There are actually a number of different ways law enforcement agencies can use information from a cellular device to track an individual; however, the method used for location specifically is considered pinging. Any time your phone is on and receiving a cell single, it is also transmitting a blip of information about your location to the tower to which you are connected. This happens even if you are not in the process of making or receiving calls. It’s just the process that cellular phones use to scan for and register with the nearest location. The process is automatic, so that the current location of any cellular device that is powered on is always known by the carrier, more so for call routing purposes than for location. However, given this information, law enforcement officials can determine an approximate location of where you, or at least your phone is.

Is Cell Phone Tracking Legal?

Before you decide to go off the grid for the rest of your life, consider a few things concerning the legality of this practice. While the legal standard for obtaining location data from cellular carriers is a matter of controversy at present, the reality is that law enforcement agencies must contact the cellular company to obtain said information. And, to receive authorization to obtain such data, most companies require that the professional requesting it have some formal cause. Many times that legal cause is in the form of a warrant; however, that is debatable in some cases.

Now, to answer the question, “Can smartphones be pinged to aid in locating criminals?” The answer is very clearly yes. But the validity of that location information varies as does the means by which it is obtained. In many cases the locating information just gives a general area rather than a finite location of the individual or his or her device. Likewise, the information is only as accurate as the last scan done on the phone. And, in terms of legality. It should be required that a warrant backed by probable cause be presented in addition to the request for the information; however, that is not the cause.

Can You Hide Your Location?

If you’re an upstanding citizen and are concerned about any agency always knowing your whereabouts, there are a couple of things you can do. At the very least, consider powering down your phone and avoid public, non-encrypted Wi-Fi. Doing so should hide your location and information at least for the period of time while the device is off. In some cases using airplane mode on your phone can also cut the cellular single; however, this is not a sure bet.

Cell phone pinging can be used in fugitive recovery as well as the location of criminal activity, but the legitimacy of collecting that data is still in question. With the further development of the technology, it seems that the tactic will only become more widely used.

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