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Cellular service and mobile service both refer to mobile communication devices that connect wirelessly to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Although mobile phone technology dates back to 1950 and cellular technology was launched in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the wireless revolution took off and cell phones gained popularity. Today, hundreds of providers serve more than 7 billion mobile phone users worldwide, with Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T the top three providers in the United States.

Mobile phone usage has evolved from analog voice calls to SMS (short message service) text messages and email to everything we use today, such as digital voice calls, multiple forms of instant messages (MMS, iMessage, etc.), and mobile phone applications. Mobile phones have become pocket-sized super computers, and cellular service providers now have the infrastructure to both store and transmit vast amounts of data.

Available Information—and How to Get It

It is critical to understand what information is available, where it exists, how long it exists, and how to request it. Substantive communications (e.g., text messages, emails, etc.) are protected from disclosure—even by subpoena—under federal law (ECPA1), and most providers do not store copies of such transmissions at all or for long. However, providers store vast amounts of other data, sometimes for long periods of time, that may be critical to your case, including:

  • Subscriber information (whose phone number is it, for what period of time, what is the billing address)
  • Detailed call and text history (excluding the content of the text conversations)
  • Cell tower location data (what cell towers the phone was connected to and when, which is frequently used to place the phone user in a particular area/location on a specific date and time)
  • Mobile IP address assignment records (to whom/what user account or device the mobile provider issued a specific IP address on a particular date and time)

1The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (18 U.S.C. § 2510 et seq.) and the Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq.) (collectively, the “ECPA”) protects the records of customers of companies in the business of providing telecommunications and data transmission and storage services (Internet service providers, webmail providers, cellular service providers, social media services) from disclosure. Disclosure of these records requires a search warrant, a federal court order, or written authorization of the account holder.


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