Over the last decade, cell phones have become our lifeline. And with the rise of smart phones, location-based services have changed the way we interact with each other. Our phones know where we are at all times, and the technology is increasingly accurate.
How Does It Really Work?
Cell phones receive signals from transmitters. Each of these transmitters covers a range called a cell, which is where “cell phones” get their name. The signals are sent continuously between the phones and the transmitters, even when the phones are not in use.
Sometimes, a phone may receive signals from more than one transmitter, which allows for a process called triangulation. Specifically, if a phone is receiving signals from many towers, the phone’s location can be calculated using an algorithm and the location of those transmitters. Data collected from transmitters can even show speed and direction of the phone’s movement.
Every year, more transmitters are built. This decreases the size of the cells and increases the likelihood that your phone’s movement can be accurately tracked.
But, What About The (In)Famous “Ping”?
The transmitters are not the only source of location data. Another way to determine a phone’s location is to “ping” it. The “ping” is a request from a cell phone provider for GPS location data from the cell phone. WIFI, and location-based apps, are some of the other sources of location data that can be stored on your phone or by third parties.
In the past, when location was disputed in litigation, parties had to depend on subjective location data; in other words, it depended on where you said you were at the time of an accident and what you were doing. This remains an important aspect of litigation proceedings. However, with the rise of smart phones, litigation will increasingly depend on objective location data—or where your device said you were at the time of an accident, and what your device said you were doing. The combination of location data and phone or text records can tell an interested party whether the use of your cell phone contributed to an accident.
How Does This Apply To My Court Case?
Cell phone records may be subpoenaed in civil matters if the information is relevant to the issue at hand. In Louisiana, cell phone call and text records are used in insurance defense cases to determine whether a person contributed to an accident by using their phone at the time it occurred.
This is important because Louisiana is a comparative fault state, meaning that liability is assigned proportionally to each party who contributed to the incident. If the courts were to use the location data in addition to call and text records, it could very likely create a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding an accident.
Advanced Technology and Forensics
Forensic techniques can be used to recover location data from the devices themselves. A common misconception is that deleted data is not recoverable. This is not the case. The act of deleting something from a phone simply frees that space on the hard drive to be overwritten, but that may not happen right away, or ever. This means that even deleted location data can be recovered in some cases.
Privacy experts and even the United States Supreme Court are concerned about the misuse of cell phone location data in the context of criminal cases. In 2018, the Supreme Court held that in a criminal case, the government violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution when it accesses historical location data without a warrant.
If you have legal questions, please contact us to speak to our attorneys at Loeb Law Firm. Our attorneys have extensive experience and are prepared to provide you with legal advice regarding your issue.
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 Isom, David K., Getting to Where: Location Based Electronic Discovery in Criminal and Civil Litigation, 6-7, http://www.isomlawfirm.com/location-based-electronic-discovery.pdf (last accessed July 21, 2019).
 Id. at 7.
 Yang, Jie, et al., Accuracy Characterization of Cell Tower Localization, 1, http://www.winlab.rutgers.edu/~Gruteser/papers/tower10.pdf (last accessed July 21, 2019).
 Isom, David K., Getting to Where: Location Based Electronic Discovery in Criminal and Civil Litigation, 7, http://www.isomlawfirm.com/location-based-electronic-discovery.pdf (last accessed July 21, 2019).
 On Q Professional Investigations, Locating Mobile Phones through Pinging and Triangulation, http://www.onqpi.com/blog/locating-mobile-phones-through-pinging-and-triangulation (last accessed July 21, 2019).
 Isom, David K., Getting to Where: Location Based Electronic Discovery in Criminal and Civil Litigation, 3, http://www.isomlawfirm.com/location-based-electronic-discovery.pdf (last accessed July 21, 2019).
 See, Ritchey v. State Farm Mutual Automotive Insurance Company, 228 So.3d 272, 2017-0233 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/15/17).
 La. C.C. Art. 2323.
 See, Carpenter v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2206 (2018).