Locating Mobile Phones through Pinging and Triangulation

I hesitated to include this article since cell phone pings has always been something of an urban legend among the private investigation and bail enforcement communities. However, I do know for certain that it is absolutely possible and that many fugitives and abducted children have been recovered through the use of cell phone pinging by various State and Federal law enforcement agencies. Do you remember when President Bush went to the Middle East on a surprise visit to the troops not too long ago? The media made a big deal about the fact that the Secret Service made everyone onboard Air Force One, including the President, take the battery out of their cell phones so that the “real bad guys” didn’t know of their location. Voila! (Cell phone pinging has gotten someone’s attention.) I was convinced to include the article because a trusted peer indicated that he too had luck with a locate at one time and anyone interested in locating another person may at least have the need to understand the technology and the process of locating cellular phones.

There are two ways a cellular network provider can locate a phone connected to their network, either through pinging or triangulation. Pinging is a digital process and triangulation is an analog process.

A cell phone “ping” is quite simply the process of determining the location, with reasonable accuracy, of a cell phone at any given point in time by utilizing the phone GPS location aware capabilities, it is very similar to GPS vehicle tracking systems. To “ping” in this context means to send a signal to a particular cell phone and have it respond with the requested data. The term is derived from SONAR and echolocation when a technician would send out a sound wave, or ping, and wait for its return to locate another object. New generation cell phones and mobile service providers are required by federal mandate, via the “E-911” program, to be or become GPS capable so that 911 operators will be able to determine the location of a caller who is making an emergency phone call. When a new digital cell phone is pinged, it determines its latitude and longitude via GPS and sends these coordinates back via the SMS system (the same system used to send text messages). This means that in instances where a fugitive or other missing person has a GPS enabled cell phone (and that the phone has power when being polled, or pinged) that the cell phone can be located within a reasonable geographic area- some say within several feet of the cell phone.

With the older style analog cellular phones and digital mobile phones that are not GPS capable the cellular network provider can determine where the phone is to within a hundred feet or so using “triangulation” because at any one time, the phone is usually able to communicate with more than one of the aerial arrays provided by the phone network. The cell towers are typically 6 to 12 miles apart (less in cities) and a phone is usually within range of at least three of them. By comparing the signal strength and time lag for the phone’s carrier signal to reach at each tower, the network provider can triangulate the phone’s approximate position.

Similar technology is used to track down lost aircraft and yachts through their radio beacons. It’s not identical because most radio beacons use satellites and older cell phones use land-based aerial arrays but the principle is the same.

Not surprisingly, the phone network companies are shy about admitting they have this ability. The triangulation and pinging capability of mobile phone network companies varies according to the age of their equipment. A few can only do it manually with a big drain on skilled manpower. But these days most companies can generate the information automatically, which makes it cheap enough to sell.

Some nefarious service providers have indicated that they have either developed sources within mobile telephone service providers to be able to get this information upon request or have access to the software interfaces to accomplish this on their own (or some variant thereof). I highly suspect that these “cell phone ping service providers” I see advertising from time to time are actually using a good ol’ fashioned pretext to obtain the location of a cell phone rather than using an actual ping. If you do come across a real provider, please let me know.

There you have it- the short course regarding the technical capability of locating cell phones and those who possess them either through pinging or triangulation. Again, I cannot speak to the commercial availability of such a service but like anything else in the investigative business; for now I believe that mobile-phone pinging is largely urban myth among private investigators, fugitive recovery investigators and skip tracers.