One of the Best Sources of Evidence
Stories about cell phone location data being used as evidence to help convict suspects in criminal cases are common these days in crime shows like Dateline and 48 Hours; in fact, 48 Hours just covered a case this past Saturday where the suspect’s cell phone location data put him in a location where a murder victim was found (during the day she disappeared). Cell phone location data is one of the best sources of evidence in criminal cases today and it can be tracked even if you attempt to turn off tracking. It also has numerous potential applications in civil cases as well.
The Modern Cell Phone and GPS
Today’s “smart” iPhone and Android devices with cell service essentially include their own Global Positioning System (GPS) system for tracking locations, which is very accurate. It can identify your location to a specific address (or very close to it) and it can be vital to locate a person’s phone if they are lost or their phone is stolen. It can also be useful to 911 operators to identify the location of a call in an emergency, which saves countless lives every year.
People looking to avoid location detection (such as a thief who steals your phone or a teenager looking to avoid detection) can turn off Location Services in an iPhone or Android device. However, one of the biggest misconceptions about cell phone location tracking is that doing so makes the device untraceable.
Four Ways to Track a Phone Without Location Services
Here are four ways a phone can still be tracked without Location Services being turned on:
Cell Phone Towers: While not as accurate as GPS data, cell phone towers can provide an approximate location of the device and it has been used in numerous criminal cases, including the 48 Hours case mentioned above.
Public Wi-Fi Networks: Most free Wi-Fi providers collect your device’s media access control (MAC) address when you connect to their Wi-Fi network. So, if you’re trying to avoid detection but love surfing the web and hanging out with a latte at Starbucks (for example), you’re still being tracked at any location.
Malware: Some malware can be used to track your device, even with GPS services turned off and, as we discussed previously, Android users are “more interesting” to cybercriminals.
StingRays: These are cell-site simulators used by law enforcement to track devices in a given area and are often used to collect information on suspects.
Cell Phone Location Data Isn’t Just Applicable to Criminal Cases
While cell phone location data is most often used in criminal cases, it can be important evidence in civil cases as well. Here are a few examples where it could be important:
Employment dispute over wrongful termination where the location of the former employee during working hours could help or hinder their claims.
Economic or environmental disaster where the location data of employees could have an impact (like this case we covered last week).
IP theft case involving former employees where location could reveal meetings they had with a competitor before leaving the company (such as this case we covered back in June).
When looking to protect or comprehensively preserve and collect mobile device data (including location data), it’s important to work with an experienced professional who understands the ins and outs of mobile devices. “Location, location, location” isn’t just a concept that applies to real estate property values; it’s also a concept that applies to evidence in criminal AND civil litigation cases today.
For more information about Forensic Discovery’s Mobile Phone Forensics services, click here.
From all of us at Forensic Discovery, Happy Holidays!