“Is Pinging a Cell Phone Legal??”

tower~~~Disclaimer:  The author is not an attorney. This post is for informational purposes only.  See your local, state or federal authorities for specific and legal interpretation~~~

Now this is a question that has been on the boards for countless years.  And, no matter who says what, it always ends in an argument.  So, I’m going to give you the facts and the  LAW and you decide from there. Fair enough?  This is how I perceive a true “Ping.”

1. What is a “Ping?”  A Ping of a cell phone is when the cell phone service provider, under express legal authority, sends a signal to a specific phone on their network. Whereupon, when the phone is “hit”, the tower that the phone hit off of  reports back to the mobile service provider.   A true Ping is not calling the subject up, pre-texting him/her and asking them where they are at.  

2.  Does this “Ping” give the exact location of the phone?  No.  The service provider relates to law enforcement the tower that the phone hit.  Then, law enforcement has to go to that tower location and painstakingly search a radius from the tower for the phone.  It’s not like on TV, folks.

3. What is the Law?

 H.R. 4709: The Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006

Look specifically at:

(b) Prohibition on Sale or Transfer of Confidential Phone Records Information

(c) Prohibition on Purchase or Receipt of Confidential Phone Records Information-

`(1) Except as otherwise permitted by applicable law, whoever, in interstate or foreign commerce, knowingly and intentionally purchases or receives, or attempts to purchase or receive, confidential phone records information of a covered entity, without prior authorization from the customer to whom such confidential phone records information relates, or knowing or having reason to know such information was obtained fraudulently, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both. (any emphasis is mine).

Look at that word, “confidential.”  Is the data you’re seeking in your client’s phone bill?  No? Then it’s confidential. Problem solved.

So, Mr. Hot Shot P.I., you say you can ping a phone? Well, first off, a true ping can only be done by the cell phone service provider. So does that mean you have a source inside??  Naughty, naughty…see “b” above.  Secondly, for you to have that information in your possession can get you up to 10 years.  Hey, don’t blame me, go see George W..  He passed it.

How about detailed phone records, Tom? The only LEGAL way you can get them is through an attorney or law enforcement, unless the victim is providing you their records on their own. And we are now seeing where cell phone service providers are not even doing that anymore without a warrant or subpoena.  

“But my P.I. has a source in Canada.  Canada is not ruled by American law.”  Yes, but…if you or your P.I. get possession of those records, via fax, mail, carrier pigeon, etc. you are now in violation of the above law.  Possession is possession.

So, what’s the conclusion? Still think you’re legal? Ok, then next time you get those phone records no one else can get, go to the local FBI office and brag to them how well you did.  We’ll see you in a few years!

If you are an Attorney seeking a Subject Matter Expert in the field of Mobile Phone Forensics and Cell Tower Analysis, please contact me at:  864-252-7451 or at tom [at] cellularforensics [dot] com



  1. Clay Boswell says:

    Nice article on this topic Tom.

    So how do companies who offer these “locate” services do so legally in the US and why doesn’t the FBI (or others) shut them down? Same question regarding providers who will sell reverse lookups for cell numbers.

    • Tom Slovenski says:

      Great Questions! It seems that the right “person” has not been victimized yet so as to set the authorities searching for these illegal providers. As was the case before HR 4709, IMHO, this law came about after a particular group of persons’ cell records were found and revealed. Coincidence? Personally, I think not. As for reverse lookups of cell numbers, I don’t know. Could it be that these info providers are pulling from public records, google, etc? Or could some have an “insider”? Again, I don’t know.

      Anyone else got an idea?

      • Ryan Ferreira says:

        I’d go with public records on the whole. If you’ve ever looked up your own phone number, oftentimes the providers can’t find anything (speaking from the free reverse lookup services, I’ve never been foolish enough to try a paid service one). In that case, it’s no different than the White Pages books back when landlines were common.

        As for pinging location services, perhaps the government has priorities that sit higher. Take the FCC’s Do Not Call list for instance – rarely do they actually pursue violators… Could be that the location service providers are regarded in the same manner?

        Last option, the companies could just look the other way and pretend the person requesting the search is the customer, as the law states “without prior authorization from the customer to whom such confidential phone records information relates…”

  2. Finally! Thank you for telling the truth about “Pinging”

  3. David Warkentine says:

    I’m not sure the naysayers really know how this works. Do you know how an RDF “finds” another radio? If so, then what’s the difference? You don’t need anyone on the “inside” to “find” a cell phone signal. The location of a cell phone is no more “confidential” than the location of a CB or VHF radio or a short wave radio. If you’re looking for Joe Schmo and you drive by a location and see him standing at that location, even if he’s in his own front yard he’s in public view and there are no laws against looking at him. You can even take a picture of him. Same thing with a cell phone signal. That signal is floating around out there in public view if you know how to find it. However, if you put some software on the target cell phone that allows you to track it without the knowledge of the cell phone owner it would seem that then you are getting into the “confidential” arena. If what you say is actually true then why is the government all up in arms about Snowden? Why is the ACLU trying to get a law passed to require that a warrant be issued before a cell phone can be tracked?

    • Tom Slovenski says:

      The signal may be out there floating around, but how are you going to snatch it, decode it and make sense of it? Now if you were to do that with a satellite signal from let’s say, Dish TV, would you not need a special box and a decoder card? Isn’t that illegal with the Dish signal? So what would be the difference with a cell phone digital signal?
      I’m not trying to be sarcastic, and I appreciate your input.
      I don’t make the laws, I was just presenting it. BTW: how come we don’t hear of any PI’s charging the hill to get different legislation concerning cell phones in the PI’s favor??