Can Cell Phone Companies Retrieve Text Messages?by Erik Arvidson
Most cellphone carriers will retain subscribers' text message data for a short period of time, usually for about a week or two. However, given the vast amount of text messaging data sent over carriers' networks, carriers can only keep text messages for a short amount of time because of storage space limitations. Some law enforcement agencies have asked carriers to keep text message data longer for criminal investigation purposes.
Once a cellphone subscriber sends a text message, both the sender and the recipient have a record of the message on their phones. In addition, the wireless carrier will usually keep a record of the text message on its own server for a limited time. Those text messages can be subject to a subpoena by police for an investigation.
According to a May 2008 article by Slate magazine, AT&T Wireless typically keeps cellphone text message data for about 48 hours after it is sent. Sprint does not keep text messages at all. A spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless told the Columbus Dispatch in May 2011 that the company keeps text messages for "a very, very limited period."
In January 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security that cellphone companies should be required to keep cellphone records longer to assist criminal investigations. Federal law doesn't require carriers to keep that data for any length of time. However, the Justice Department said that text messages, in addition to email and other data, have become important evidence in prosecuting many murderers and child sex offenders. One example was a 2006 murder case in Los Angeles in which police solved the case using circumstantial evidence, including a text message that undermined the key suspect's alibi. Police are sometimes hampered by the fact that by the time a court order has been secured to obtain text messages, they have already been deleted by the carrier.
In 2008, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former chief of staff, Christine Beatty, were embroiled in a scandal that resulted in their being charged with perjury for denying their affair in court. A Michigan court released documents detailing intimate text messages sent between Kilpatrick and Beatty in 2002 and 2003. While most carriers would not have retained the text messages that long, Kilpatrick was sending text messages using a pager through SkyTel, which primarily offers messaging services to government agencies and corporations, and which provides message archiving as a key service feature. Ironically, Kilpatrick had approved the specialized messaging service for city employees, which required text messages to be archived.
- Slate: Do Text Messages Live Forever?; Jacob Leibenluft; May 2008
- The Columbus Dispatch: Phone companies' ditching of text messages might hamper crime investigations; Holly Zachariah; May 2011
- Government Security News: Law enforcement wants longer cell phone, Internet data retention; Mark Rockwell; January 2011
- Law.com: Harvesting Evidence From the Sea of Text Messages; Alan M. Winchester and Russell E. Maine; October 2010