Q: Can I “unlock” my cell phone to get service from a different carrier?
A: Yes. It is possible to UNLOCK a phone so it will work for a different carrier. This practice, called “flashing” a phone, is common and legal practice in Europe, where international travel across different national cell-service-provider carriers is usual.
In the United States, a cell phone manufacturer or user can now lawfully unlock a cell phone since August 1, 2014, when the Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act became effective. This law makes it legal for cellphone or smartphone users who have fulfilled all the requirements of their phone contract to unlock their phone and move to another carrier. Some carriers, however, state that unlocking a phone may violate the warranty.
Unlocking a phone is not the same as “jailbreaking,” which is the act of bypassing built-in phone device restrictions to download and install features and applications that the manufacturer does not permit or include. Jailbreaking is currently legal in the United States.
Q: What types of information does my cell phone service provider collect?
A: All cell phones require a service provider to connect the phone to the network. Service providers commonly collect:
• phone numbers you have called and phone numbers from which you have received calls;
• the amount of time you spend on each call;
• incoming and outgoing text messages;
• times and dates you used your phone to access the Internet;
• the IP address assigned to your phone during your Internet sessions;
• the IP addresses of the websites you visited during Internet sessions;
• the geophysical location of your phone.
In addition, Microsoft, Blackberry, Android phone and Apple iPhone service providers save passwords and collect Wi-Fi connections. They can also collect application data.
Q: What other types of information stored in my phone may be accessed without my knowledge by malware, spyware or other harmful programs?
A: Potentially, all information on your cell phone can be compromised. This includes:
• photos and videos stored on the phone or its “sd” memory card;
• text messages;
• your contact list;
• financial information;
• your calendar.
Q: How can these harmful programs get onto my cell phone?
A: You can infect your phone by installing applications, clicking on ads built to infect your cell phone, or by clicking on phony cell phone updates.
Q: Can my cell phone information be accessed or stolen in other ways?
A: Yes. Whenever you use your cell phone over an unsecured Wi-Fi connection, anyone in the vicinity can intercept data you type into your phone and send over the wireless network. Be careful when using unsecured Wi-Fi connections. Do not transmit password, banking or other financial data unless you are certain the data is being encrypted.
Q: What should I do if I lose my cell phone?
A: Immediately contact your cell phone service provider. Also, you can install onto your cell phone a “remote wiping” software capability that you can access if your phone is lost or stolen. Because your cell phone also may store a great deal of sensitive personal information, including login and password information, you should treat the loss of your cell phone as a potential identity theft event.
Q: Can my cell-phone be bugged or configured to remotely monitor my activities?
A: Yes, but it would require physical access to the phone. Such activity may be legal or illegal. For example, it is legal for parents to install special software onto their children’s phones to allow parents to receive text messages about the phone’s location, any calls made and copies of text messages. It is illegal, however, to divulge information obtained by intercepting messages sent over an interstate communications carrier line, and federal courts generally do not allow wiretap evidence to be used.
Q: I’m involved in a lawsuit, and I used the application, “Snap Chat,” to send a picture that my lawyer thinks could be crucial to my case. Since the Snap Chap app deletes pictures after they’ve been viewed, can I get the picture back?
A: Yes, but if the mobile phone has been used a lot since the picture was viewed, then the chances of recovering the picture will diminish. Newer mobile phones, in particular, delete data within their internal memory sooner than older models. To maximize the chances of retrieving your picture, power off your mobile phone and give it to your lawyer, who can send it to a forensic examiner if the phone contains vital evidence.
Q: Can communications be sent and received by messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Viper and Tinder be recovered?
A: Yes. Even if the message has been deleted, it can be recovered if the deletion was recent and the device has been used only minimally.
Q: Is it possible to find out when, where and even by whom a photo was taken if a smart phone was used to take the picture?
A: If the smart phone’s GPS tracking system was switched on when the photo was taken, the location of the photo will be embedded in the photo itself. The camera will also embed in the picture file certain additional information (“metadata”) such as the camera’s serial number, the date on which the picture file was created, camera make and model and size of the picture. The camera’s serial number is unique to the device, and can identify the smart phone’s owner.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Hinckley attorney Donald A. Wochna and Hayden Pritchard, CCE, CCFE, ACE, AME.