Eventually, computerization took hold in the telecommunications sector. Gradually, it took over tasks, like routing calls, that were previously performed by human or mechanical operators.
This trend was a watershed moment. From a consumer perspective, it allowed for new conveniences, like caller ID and call waiting.
From a law enforcement perspective, it simplified investigations. Calls no longer had to be traced manually across switches. Nor did law enforcement have to monitor calls in real time—they could simply look at the metadata generated by calls.
The word metadata means “data about data.” In telecommunications, metadata includes things like where a call originated and its destination, and the type of phone (cellular, landline, or payphone) that was used.
Because these records are effectively small fragments of text that can easily be stored on a database, phone companies can retain them for a long time. This allows investigators to obtain information about a call months—or even years—after it took place.
The exact duration varies significantly between phone companies, and each has their own standards. There are also differences depending on the type of phone and phone plan used.
In 2011, leaked FBI documents revealed that some phone companies retain records on post-paid subscriptions significantly longer than those made from prepaid, or “burner,” phones, which are often used by criminals.
Because call records are now stored digitally, investigators can also access records with a level of immediacy that previously wasn’t possible. After all the legal paperwork is in place, it’s merely a matter of looking up a record in a database.
Law Enforcement Doesn’t Have to Wait
It’s easier than ever for law enforcement to trace ordinary phone calls. You can thank the computerization of the phone system for that.
Of course, there are other ways criminals can communicate and evade the thin blue line, such as with VPNs and encrypted voice apps. Those cases won’t be as easily solved—not even by waiting a few minutes to trace the call.