Whether you seek to protect your own conversations or wonder how you can best monitor your children's phone conversations, it is important to understand cell phone privacy laws. These laws vary in each state, but there is some common ground among them.
Understanding Cell Phone Privacy Laws
Even though cell phone privacy laws may differ from one place to another, they are all largely designed to protect your personal cell phone privacy. Just as you wouldn't expect someone to inexplicably tap into your landline telephone, the same can be said about cellular communications. This refers to voice conversations, as well as text messages, mobile email messages, and other forms of communication performed through cellular phones.
There are many intricacies to the numerous laws that govern cell phone use, monitoring, and privacy, but the two main areas of interest to most people are the ability to track the physical location of people via their cell phones and the ability to record (or intercept) cell phone conversations.
Tracking Spouses, Loved Ones, and Others
Many mobile phones are equipped with GPS technology that allows individuals to see where a phone and the phone's holder are located. However, phones that do not have GPS can still be tracked through cell phone tower triangulation. This is not nearly as accurate as a true GPS solution, but it still offers a general ability to trace a mobile phone location.
The proliferation of surveillance applications has also made it easier than ever to track the physical location of spouses, loved ones, and other people of interest.
Even though it's technically possible to track someone through a cell phone, it's not always legal. Unless you are part of a law enforcement agency and have a warrant to do so, it is usually illegal to track the physical location of an adult person through his or her cell phone without his or her consent. This doesn't mean that it's illegal to track a person at all; it just means that you need that person's permission.
Permission Not Required
On the other hand, child-tracking cell phones are perfectly legal for parents to use. That's because the law does not require parents to obtain permission from their minor-aged children to track them.
Recording Cell Phone Conversations
Can someone intercept a phone call and listen to the cell phone conversation? This is certainly possible since mobile phones make use of wireless technology. However, it is still very difficult to do, and it would, once again, be illegal to do so without the permission of both parties involved in the call.
As with the GPS tracking of loved ones, law enforcement agencies with a warrant can "bug" the calls or attain cell phone records as needed as part of their investigations. This would fall under the "Big Brother" phenomenon that has been described in many publications, television shows, and movies.
For the consumer, a person can legally record a phone call (or intercept other communications) as long as both parties agree to have the call recorded. If you have ever called in to a customer service line to a company, you might have been provided with a pre-recorded message that says the call may be monitored or recorded for "quality assurance" purposes. In kind, you can do the same and record the calls for your own purposes, as long as you inform the other party of your intent. If the other party disagrees, the call cannot be recorded legally.
Smartphone Privacy Laws
Smartphones allow users to send and receive emails, use online banking, and conduct numerous other transactions over the Internet. These phones use the same wireless networks as traditional cell phones. As of this writing in November of 2013, there are no formally-established laws that pertain to privacy for smartphones users, most likely because of the relative newness of these devices.
1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
Currently, several courts are debating whether laws that pertain to computer or traditional cell phone privacy should also apply to smartphones. One such debate is whether the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act should apply to smartphones. As it stands, this act prohibits illegally accessing a computer to obtain data that the government has deemed worthy of protection. This data includes financial data and the computer's operating codes.
Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986
Lawmakers are also debating whether the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 applies to smartphones. This act prohibits the reading or disclosing of an electronic communication. The issue with this act is that the definition of "electronic communication" is unclear.
Laws Are Always Subject to Change
Most people would agree that voicemail hacking is not only illegal, it's unethical. The same can be said about tracking the location of a phone via GPS or recording a phone call without the permission of all parties involved. This article provides a general guideline regarding cell phone privacy laws, but, as with all other laws, these can change over time and in each jurisdiction. Be sure to check with your local law enforcement agency if you have any specific questions.