Can The Police Track Your Phone? Everything You Need To Know

Sophia Taylor

By Sophia Taylor


You’ve likely seen how the police tap phones in films and TV shows. They’re able to listen in on phone calls, monitor text messages, and even track the phone’s location. But can police departments do this in real life?

A Virginia Mercury investigation reveals that Chesterfield County Police carried out over 4,500 days of cell phone location surveillance in the past year.

Also, the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office carried out 1,407 days of mobile device surveillance and obtained at least 71 real-time location search warrants.

As you can see, local law enforcement can indeed track cell phones. However, it’s not as easy as the movies make it look.

In this article, we’ll unpack how the police can track mobile devices and what the restrictions are around monitoring phones.

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Can Law Enforcement Agencies Track My Cell Phone?

Our phones collect extensive data, including our location, which law enforcement can access.

As phones collect so much information, police can access specific details about your location and whereabouts at any time.

They can access this data by obtaining a judge’s permission to request it from your mobile service provider, often without your knowledge.

This may sound worrying, but it’s important to know that there are many restrictions in place that police must follow if they want access to your phone data.

Under U.S. law, the police must typically obtain a search warrant from a judge, which specifically permits them to track your phone.

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Do Police Need a Warrant to Access Location Data?

Although there have been some cases where police have not followed the letter of the law when it comes to tracking mobile devices, they generally need court permission to do so.

For police to get a search warrant to access location data, they have to prove something to a judge called ‘probable cause.’ This means they must prove that tracking a phone will likely lead to evidence of a crime.

An officer would need to present information from reliable sources that someone is involved in illegal activity to convince a judge of probable cause. This is the only way they can get a warrant to track a phone.

Usually, a warrant will only be provided if the court believes a crime will be solved or significant evidence will be gathered if a device is tracked.

🤔 Can the police track your phone without a warrant?

There is another way that law enforcement can get permission to track your phone. And they don’t have to provide as much evidence as they would for a search warrant.

In this scenario, police must prove something called ‘reasonable basis’ to a court. If they can prove this, they can access historical phone communications, which means they can see where your phone was active in the past.

With this type of court order, police can’t access live data about your phone’s current location.

How Do Police Departments Track Phones?

There are several ways that the police can track your phone. It’s important to remember that a warrant is required for law enforcement to use any of the following tactics:

📱 Through your mobile carrier

The main way that police can track your phone is by working with your mobile carrier. Carriers keep a record of what cell towers your device has connected to and the associated signal strength.

The police can use this information to triangulate your location both historically and in real time.

📱 Using a cell phone tracking app

Police can use apps designed for tracking mobile devices to monitor individuals. Once installed on your phone, these apps enable law enforcement to access your location data and call logs.

These apps are available on both Android and iOS devices. They are somewhat harder for police to use as approval from both your mobile carrier and the device’s manufacturer is required before they can be downloaded onto a phone.

📱 With a StingRay device

These devices are a type of cell-site simulator. They allow police to track and intercept communications from a mobile device.

A StingRay acts just like a cell tower would. It sends out signals to all the cell phones in the area, allowing police to collect data about the user.

Police would need to physically carry the device to the area where they want to monitor cell phone data. A StingRay can also be mounted onto vehicles and airplanes.

📱 Using cell tower impersonators

A cell tower impersonator tricks mobile devices into sending their location data to a fake tower. Police can then intercept communications on the phones connected to this tower.

A fake base station emits signals mimicking those from real cell towers, prompting phones to transmit their location data and details of calls being made or received directly to the police.

📱 Using an IMSI catcher

An international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catcher is another device that can help police locate people. It can also intercept text messages and phone calls, aiding law enforcement in identifying the phone’s owner.

Like a cell site simulator or tower impersonator, the device tricks cell phones into connecting with it.

👉 Cell Phone Tracking Solves a Major Case

Police in Richmond tracked a phone belonging to a kingpin of a massive drug ring named Nikike Tyler. This drug trafficking ring imported and distributed large amounts of illicit drugs in the U.S.

The police department tracked his phone for more than a year. They were able to do this by obtaining and updating warrants as time went on, especially because he continued to change phone numbers.

Tyler pleaded guilty in 2022 and was sentenced to 23 years in prison, ending an international drug trafficking operation.

Can Law Enforcement Listen to My Phone Calls?

Other than tracking your location, police officers can use the methods listed above to intercept your phone calls.

This means they can either record your calls and listen to them at a later stage, or they can listen to your calls in real-time.

Again, police would need to prove to a judge that listening to your calls is necessary to uncover evidence or detect criminal activity. They can’t listen to your private conversations if you’re an innocent citizen who is not suspected of breaking the law.

🚨 Restrictions Against Listening to Calls

Police officers are not allowed to listen to phone calls indefinitely. They’re only given permission to intercept conversations for a set period, usually specified in the warrant.

For example, if a suspect typically only makes calls during the evening, police can only listen in on calls during that time.

What Data Can a Police Department Request?

If police officers were to work with your mobile service provider, there are some different types of location data they can request access to.

📌 Historical data

Each time a mobile device connects with a cell tower, it produces a time-stamped record. This record is called cell-site location information (CSLI).

With historical CSLI, law enforcement can access data based on where your phone has been in the past.

Data like this can aid police in criminal investigations because it could help place where a suspect was at the time of the incident.

📌 Real-time data

Real-time CSLI tells law enforcement where your phone is right now, and they can follow this data as you move around.

Your mobile service provider can continuously monitor your real-time CSLI. They can also ping your cell phone, which forces it to provide its current location.

📌 GPS movements

Your phone’s movements can be tracked via GPS, which uses satellite signals to locate mobile devices. This information is often stored on your phone but can also be sent to a database.

Your GPS movements can be monitored in real-time by law enforcement officers.

📌 Tower dumps

Police can request a tower dump to get information from all the cell phones that were connected to a cell tower at a specific time in the past.

This type of data gives officers information about every device that was connected at one particular time. Doing this could help them find suspects in a crime committed near a specific tower.

📌 Geofence

Like tower dumps, geofence data is a type of reverse location search. A geofence is a search of a historical location database. This means police can access data from all the cell phones in a specific location at a certain time.

This data can be obtained through local tracking apps and may be used to help police narrow their search parameters. It allows them to pinpoint which devices have users that may be connected to a crime.

This database typically provides police with far more data than a tower dump.

Can the Police Track My Lost or Stolen Phone?

If police can track the location of a cell phone using the methods explained earlier, can they help you find your lost or stolen phone? The answer is that they may be able to help.

The first thing you’d need to do if your phone is lost or stolen is to file a report with your local police station. They may be able to use your phone’s international mobile equipment identity (IMEI) number to locate your phone.

🤔 What Is an IMEI Number?

This is a unique 15-digit serial number assigned to every mobile device in the world. They’re stored in a database called the equipment identity register (EIR), which holds information about all phone equipment currently in use.

Your phone’s IMEI number reveals details about your device, including the brand and model, the year it was released, and other information.

If your phone has been stolen, you should also ask your mobile service provider to block your SIM card. This ensures no one can use your SIM card and phone number.

Police departments might then be able to work with your service provider to track your cell phone using your IMEI number. They can do this even if someone has replaced your SIM card or has switched your phone off.

Award-Winning Apps to Keep Your Phone Safe

While police do have the ability and means to track your cell phone, it’s likely they won’t be doing so unless you’re a suspect in a crime. Police also have to go through a stringent legal process to be able to track your phone.

However, while the police probably aren’t tracking your phone, your device can still be vulnerable to being hacked by cybercriminals.

If a hacker gains access to your phone, they can spy on your phone calls. They can also see your text messages, photos, location, and passwords.

To avoid being hacked by cybercriminals, you can use one of Certo’s apps for iPhone or Android to protect your mobile device. These can help detect and remove hacking apps and spyware from your phone.

This keeps your device safe and gives you peace of mind that your sensitive information is secure.

Cover Image by DC Studio on Freepik