Cops Ask Congress for Your Text Messages

Human Rights

Think texting is private, always and forever? You may want to think again.

Law enforcement authorities are asking Congress to mandate that cell phone companies record and store data from Americans’ text messages for at least two years, according to a report on the tech media site CNET. In recent years, the use of cell phone data in criminal cases has increased, and now law enforcement wants cell phone companies to be required to retain that data.

The groups asking Congress include the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, which represents the biggest police forces in the U.S., the National District Attorneys’ Association and more. Civil liberties groups have come out to oppose the idea.

Law enforcement groups claim that the lack of a retention requirement for cell phone data hinders criminal investigations. As Congress debates updates to a 1986 privacy law, these questions are coming to the fore.

“We would oppose any mandatory data retention mandate as part of ECPA reform," one American Civil Liberties Union staffer, Christopher Calabrese, told CNET.

The use of text message data by law enforcement has skyrocketed in recent years. CNET notes that “in one 2009 case in Michigan, wireless provider SkyTel turned over the contents of 626,638 SMS messages, a figure described by a federal judge as ‘staggering.’”

The legislative ask comes as a raging judicial debate has taken place around the country about the legality of the use of cell phone data in criminal prosecutions. A recent New York Times review of court cases and legislation shows that there are no uniform rules when it comes to whether law enforcement can search cell phone records and use the data as evidence.

While this law enforcement ask, if taken up and passed, would require cell phone companies to retain text message data, some cell phone companies already do so--though no company comes close to retaining data for two years, which is what law enforcement authorities want. “Text messages are stored in our systems for approximately three to five days,” a spokeswoman for US Cellular told CNET. “The content of text messages can only be disclosed subject to a lawful request. We comply with every lawful request from authorities.”

Verizon reportedly retains text messages for 3 to 5 days as well.

In addition to the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has also come out strongly against the law enforcement proposal.

“These data retention policies serve one purpose: to require companies to keep databases on their customers so law enforcement can fish for evidence,” said EFF’s Hanni Fakhoury. “And this would seem to be done against the wishes of the providers, presumably, since...some of the providers don't keep SMS messages at all."

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