A Cell Phone Ping: What’s The Law and What’s The Lie?

Cell Phone PingSome folks out there on the ‘net, and in some of the forums that you read, offer to provide a cell phone pinging service. There’s several discussions on cell phone pinging services. Belles Camp is an approved location information developer by all the carriers.

We have clear distinctions about cell phone location information, a.k.a. cell phone ping. So we thought we’d write about this topic to give you the facts.

What is a Cell Phone Ping

A cell phone ping is when a signal is sent to a cell phone and the cell phone responds by reporting its location.

What the Law Says

Both the Federal government and State governments have laws, rules, and regulation regarding the access, distribution, and use of cell phone location information.

On June 27th 2013, The Federal Communications Commission issued a declaratory ruling regarding the use of Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI).

CPNI is defined in Section 222 of the Communication Act of 1934 – as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and now in a declaratory ruling on June 27, 2013.


Note the title of the document. Note that the word “location” is now included as CPNI. Location, naturally means cell phone location. But don’t take my word for it — it’s right here, in the ruling:

“…the phone’s location at the beginning and end of each call”.

The ruling also makes clear that carriers may only disclose cell phone location information in very limited ways without the permission and consent of the consumer.

To get a cell phone location you need customer permission.

Government officials and privacy advocates are in agreement that there is no legal way to obtain cell phone location information without the customer’s permission and that the source for this information is from the carriers themselves.

Mobile devices contain a large amount of very personal data, including the location of the device. Data brokers and service agencies have advertised on the web, as well as, in investigator forums, the ability to obtain the cell phone location—“cell phone ping”—the cell phone location at the time of the ping.

The unauthorized disclosure and use of this information has privacy advocates—and now politicians, sounding the alarm—see the NSA scandal. As the public becomes aware of how their data is retained, the length of retention and who has access to the data, there will be additional outcry. More laws are sure to be passed.

The only source of cell phone location is the carrier.

Remember that the only source of cell phone location is the carrier—and that the carrier can release cell phone location information to third parties only if they have the customer’s permission.

If the cell phone location information is confidential—it is—how then, would any service that advertises obtaining a cell phone location do that without consent and adherence to strict rules and regulations? Only one way we can think of—illegitimately.

A Cell Phone Ping is used by apps and web services.

Customers can give application providers permission to access their location information (cell phone or computer) – it happens all the time. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and countless other apps all have location information built-in.

But these apps can’t just obtain location information willy-nilly. There’s strict rules they have to follow. Plus, the expectation by the consumer is that their location information is only going to be used by that application, for purposes disclosed, and specified in the application’s Terms and Conditions.

To obtain location information, steps must be followed.

Obtaining it any other way is not compliant and in violation of laws.

First, the application provider must notify a customer that the application wants to obtain their location information. Next, the customer must have the choice of agreeing or declining to allow the app to obtain their location information—before the app obtains their location information. If the customer agrees to allow the app to use their location information, the application must publish terms and conditions in a URL and also a telephone number that the customer can call with questions.

If the location information is ongoing, the application must remind the customer every 30 days that their location is being obtained. The application must also offer the customer a way to opt-out at anytime, while their location information is being obtained. Several recent legislation actions concern exactly how location information permission and consent can be granted, and what notices are necessary.

As I previously stated, there has to be an ’opt-in’, a positive assent, a means to opt-out, and terms and conditions that include the use of the location information along with a privacy statement.

The rules for location information are clear, all carriers are required to follow them. Location information simply cannot be obtained any other way. If location information is obtained by means of pretext or coercion, this would be in violation of Federal and State laws. Ignorance is not a defense. We’re experts in the field—if you have any questions, contact us.

Over three blog posts on Cell Phone Pinging we will address:

*We’re not lawyers, we’re certainly not your lawyer. Nothing here or in this or other posts on this topic should be interpreted as legal advice or a commentary on how others do business.