How to Locate Where a Driver Was Before or After an Accident from Cellphone Data

Suppose a driver said she was coming from a certain direction, but you question if it’s  true. Is there a way to analyze the cellphone GPS data to determine where she was coming from before the impact? Yes.

Location tracking is not only about finding where someone is right now, like in an exciting movie chase scene where agents are pursuing someone through the streets. It can also be about answering questions about people’s historical activities and also about their beliefs, participation in events, and personal relationships. For example, location tracking could be used to try to find out whether certain people are in a romantic relationship, to find out who attended a particular meeting or who was at a particular protest, or where a witness claims to have been.

First, you have to make the correct request. The following is recommended:

A complete table of cell towers / cell site information for all cell towers / cell sites in the LAC, NEID or service area and or for all switches used, active at the time period for the call detail records requested. This shall include:cell tower location information including latitude and longitude:

  1. cell tower / cell site designation information / identification number
  2. information for each cell site sector including azimuth
  3. equipment type used at the cell site, i.e. Lucent or Nortel, etc.

Second, and most importantly, you need to know how to decipher what you have received:

  1. The time zones are in UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which, for Louisiana,  is five (5) hours ahead of Central Daylight Time. That means if the report that says on a particular day  at 00:03 actually means the day before at 7:03 p.m.
  2. The Latitude and Longitude represented on the report is of the cell tower, not the cell phone itself.
  3. Plug in the latitude and longitude coordinates  to to determine where exactly that tower sits on a map.

Based on the cell phone usage you can determine if the driver was traveling in the direction that he claimed to have been traveling prior to the time of the accident. In one particular case we were able to determine that the  most recent cell phone call prior to the accident time  was from over 8 hours earlier at 9:09 p.m. the night before.  From 11:30  pm. on the day before the accident until the early morning of the date of accident, a driver’s phone connected with a tower at longitude specific and latitude. Based on this information and the following pinging of locations, we were able to determine that accurate direction of travel based on corroborative data and not solely on the testimony of the driver.

GPS Anchor link

The Global Positioning System (GPS) lets devices anywhere in the world figure out their own locations quickly and accurately. GPS works based on analyzing signals from satellites that are operated by the U.S. government as a public service for everyone. It’s a common misconception that these satellites somehow watch GPS users or know where the GPS users are. In fact, the GPS satellites only transmit signals; the satellites don’t receive or observe anything from your phone, and the satellites and GPS system operators do not know where any particular user or device is located, or even how many people are using the system. GPS receivers (like those inside smartphones) calculate their own positions by determining how long it took the radio signals from different satellites to arrive. “GPS tracking” is done by apps running on a smartphone. They ask the phone’s operating system for its location (determined via GPS). Then the apps are able to transmit this information to someone else over the Internet.


Each cellphone provider has different guidelines to follow:


On releasing location data to you: “We do not normally release this information to customers for privacy reasons because call detail records contain all calls made or received, including calls where numbers are ‘blocked.’ Because of an FCC rule requiring that we not disclose ‘blocked’ numbers, we only release this information to a customer when we receive a valid legal demand for it.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “If the government is seeking “basic subscriber information” (defined in 18 USC sec. 2701, et seq) it can obtain that information by issuing a subpoena. If the government is seeking Sprint records relating to our customers that go beyond “basic subscriber information” then the government must furnish Sprint with a court order based on specific and articulable facts. If the government is seeking customer’s content then it must obtain a warrant based on probable cause.”


On releasing location data to you: “Giving customers location data for their wireless phones is not a service we provide.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “We do share data with law enforcement as part of a valid legal process – for example, a court order or a subpoena.”


On releasing location data to you: “No comment.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “For law enforcement agencies, we release customer information only when compelled or permitted under existing laws. This includes, but is not limited to, circumstances under which there is a declaration from law enforcement of an exigent circumstance, as well as other valid legal process, such as subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders.”

Privacy Issues

As location tracking by cell phone companies becomes increasingly accurate and widespread, the question of who your location data actually belongs to remains unresolved. Privacy activists in the U.S. say the law has not kept pace with developing technology and argue for more stringent privacy standards for cell phone companies. As Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania professor put it, “all of the rules are in a state of enormous uncertainty and flux.”

The FBI also says data collected by cell phones is not necessarily accurate enough to pose much of a threat to your privacy— for instance, in a strip mall, cell phone records may not show whether you are in a coffee shop or the apartment next door. Cell phone companies have been installing thousands of small boxes known as microcells in crowded places like parking garages and shopping malls to enable them to provide better service. Microcells  enable the phone companies to record highly precise location data. While your phone is on it is constantly recording your location.

Location Tracking Anchor link

The deepest privacy threat from mobile phones—yet one that is often completely invisible—is the way that they announce your whereabouts all day (and all night) long through the signals they broadcast. There are at least four ways that an individual phone’s location can be tracked by others.

  1. Mobile Signal Tracking — Towers

In all modern mobile networks, the operator can calculate where a particular subscriber’s phone is located whenever the phone is powered on and registered with the network. The ability to do this results from the way the mobile network is built, and is commonly called triangulation. There is no way to hide from this kind of tracking as long as your mobile phone is powered on and transmitting signals to an operator’s network. The possibility of government access to this sort of data is not theoretical: it is already being widely used by law enforcement agencies in countries like the United States.

Another related kind of government request is called a tower dump; in this case, a government asks a mobile operator for a list of all of the mobile devices that were present in a certain area at a certain time. This could be used to investigate a crime, or to find out who was present at a particular protest. (Reportedly, the Ukrainian government used a tower dump for this purpose in 2014, to make a list of all of the people whose mobile phones were present at an anti-government protest.)

  1. Mobile Signal Tracking — IMSI Catcher

A government or another technically sophisticated organization can also collect location data directly, such as with an IMSI catcher (a portable fake cell phone tower that pretends to be a real one, in order to “catch” particular users’ mobile phones and detect their physical presence and/or spy on their communications). IMSI refers to the International Mobile Subscriber Identity number that identifies a particular subscriber’s SIM card, though an IMSI catcher may target a device using other properties of the device as well.

  1. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Tracking

Modern smartphones have other radio transmitters in addition to the mobile network interface. They usually also have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support. These signals are transmitted with less power than a mobile signal and can normally be received only within a short range (such as within the same room or the same building). Both of these kinds of wireless signals include a unique serial number for the device, called a MAC address, which can be seen by anybody who can receive the signal. The device manufacturer chooses this address at the time the device is created and it cannot be changed using the software that comes with current smartphones.

The MAC address can be observed in wireless signals even if a device is not actively connected to a particular wireless network, or even if it is not actively transmitting data. Whenever Wi-Fi is turned on on a typical smartphone, the smartphone will transmit occasional signals that include the MAC address and thus let others nearby recognize that that particular device is present. This has been used for commercial tracking applications, for example to let shopkeepers determine statistics about how often particular customers visit and how long they spend in the shop.

These forms of tracking are not necessarily as useful for government surveillance because they work best at short distances and require prior knowledge or observation to determine what MAC address is built into a particular person’s device. However, these forms of tracking can be a highly accurate way to tell when a person enters and leaves a building. Turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on a smartphone can prevent this type of tracking, although this can be inconvenient for users who want to use these technologies frequently.

  1. Location Information Leaks From Apps and Web Browsing

Modern smartphones provide ways for the phone to determine its own location, often using GPS and sometimes using other services provided by location companies (which usually ask the company to guess the phone’s location based on a list of cell phone towers and/or Wi-Fi networks that the phone can see from where it is). Apps can ask the phone for this location information and use it to provide services that are based on location, such as maps that show you your position on the map.

Some of these apps will then transmit your location over the network to a service provider, which, in turn, provides a way for other people to track you. Some smartphones will give you some kind of control over whether apps can find out your physical location; a good privacy practice is to try to restrict which apps can see this information, and at a minimum to make sure that your location is only shared with apps that you trust and that have a good reason to know where you are.

So HOW Can You Protect Your Privacy?

There’s a widespread concern that phones can be used to monitor people even when not actively being used to make a call. As a result, people having a sensitive conversation are sometimes told to turn their phones off entirely, or even to remove the batteries from their phones.

  1. Turning phones off has a disadvantage: if many people at one location all do it at the same time, it’s a sign to the mobile carriers that they all thought something merited turning their phones off. (That “something” might be the start of a film in a movie theater, or the departure of a plane at an airport, but it might also be a sensitive meeting or conversation.) An alternative that might give less information away is to leave everybody’s phone in another room where the phones’ microphones wouldn’t be able to overhear the conversations.
  2. Burner Phones Anchor are used temporarily and then discarded. People who are trying to avoid government surveillance sometimes try to change phones (and phone numbers) frequently to make it more difficult to recognize their communications. They will need to use prepaid phones (not associated with a personal credit card or bank account) and ensure that the phones and SIM cards were not registered with their identity; in some countries these steps are straightforward, while in others there may be legal or practical obstacles to obtaining anonymous mobile phone service.
  3. Swapping SIM cards or moving a SIM card from one device to another offers minimal protection  because the mobile network observes both the SIM card and device together. In other words, the network operator knows the history of which SIM cards have been used in which devices, and can track either individually or both together. Second, governments have been developing mobile location analysis techniques where location tracking can be used to generate leads or hypotheses about whether multiple devices actually belong to the same person.

A further problem for the successful anonymous use of telephone services is that people’s extremely distinctive calling patterns.  Even though each of these people receive calls from a wide range of people, you’re likely the only person in the world who commonly calls both of them from the same number. So even if you suddenly changed your number, if you then resumed the same patterns in the calls you made or received, it would be straightforward to determine which new number was yours. Remember that this inference isn’t made based only on the fact that you called one particular number, but rather on the uniqueness of the combination of all the numbers that you called.

Consequently, the effective use of burner phones to hide from government surveillance requires, at least: not reusing either SIM cards or devices; not creating a physical association between the places where different devices are used;  not calling or being called by the same people when using different devices; and not carrying different devices together.


We have provided much more than you wanted to know about locating a witness before or after an accident, but the information is out there so why not share it? As always, if we can be of assistance in North Louisiana or Northeast Texas, call day or night. I always have my cellphone with me. Hey,wait a minute….

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