Police Groups Vie For Mandatory Collection Of All Private Text Messages

As Congress mulls changes to an outdated law intended to protect electronic privacy, a group of law enforcement officers is lobbying for a provision that would erode privacy by requiring that text messages be saved and stored for at least two years. According to CNET, police and prosecutors’ groups say they have increasingly come to rely on text messages as evidence in criminal cases, and they are vying for a mandated storage period for wireless providers in amendments to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act now being considered:

[T]he Senate Judiciary committee … approved sweeping amendments to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act last week. Unlike earlier drafts, the latest one veers in a very privacy-protective direction by requiring police to obtain a warrant to read the contents of e-mail messages; the SMS push by law enforcement appears to be a way to make sure it includes one of their priorities too.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the law enforcement proposal is to store the contents of SMS messages, or only the metadata such as the sender and receiver phone numbers associated with the messages. Either way, it’s a heap of data: Forrester Research reports that more than 2 trillion SMS messages were sent in the U.S. last year, over 6 billion SMS messages a day.

Among the groups urging the mandate are the Mayor Cities Police Chiefs Association, the National District Attorneys’ Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies. These agencies are not alone in vying for more data collection and retention. The Department of Justice last year called for laws requiring Internet providers to retain data. But the American Civil Liberties Union’s Christopher Calabrese points out that any such proposal certainly doesn’t belong in discussions on reform of the law intended to protect electronic privacy.

Evidence suggests that wireless carriers have a range of evolving policies on retaining text messages, from no retention at all to 180 days. Most companies, however, appear not to have policies that messages be stored for a time period even close to two years. A spokesman for U.S. Cellular told CNET that data is stored for just 3-5 days, due to the volume of the content.

Both wireless companies and law enforcement agencies do increasingly store and monitor other kinds of phone data. The New York City Police Department is retaining cell phone logs collected when phones are reported stolen, and other wireless carriers recently reported fielding 1.3 million law enforcement requests last year for various types of data.