Update to Text Message Law Stirs Rights Debate

Article excerpt

Text messages could dwell for years in digital archives if law enforcement agencies persuade Congress to require cellular service providers to store messages in case they're needed as evidence in criminal investigations.

The Senate is considering the first major update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act since its enactment in 1986, six years before a British engineer used a computer to send the first SMS (short message service) text on Dec. 3, 1992, to wish a colleague "Merry Christmas."

Twenty years later, cellphone users send and receive nearly 2.3 trillion text messages a year, and the nation's 321.7 million wireless subscriptions outnumber its population, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

Privacy advocates contend that allowing police to fish through years of fleeting text messages would expose cellphone users to unreasonable searches prohibited under the Fourth Amendment.

Authorities take a different view.

"Today's electronic communications devices are silent witnesses to the vast majority of crimes," associations representing district attorneys, police chiefs, county sheriffs and others wrote in a letter to Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking minority member.

Archiving text messages could solve criminal cases and holds "the key to ruling out suspects and exonerating the innocent," the law enforcement groups wrote in a Nov. 28 followup letter. It notes the law does not require service providers to respond swiftly to requests backed by warrants.

"From the civil liberties perspective, it's somewhat horrifying that we have this ephemeral communication channel that law enforcement is saying we should start storing," said Lorrie Cranor, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science and public policy professor and director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory.

Cranor said establishing a repository of text messages would add to the trend of building snooping capabilities into a telecommunications system created for communication, not surveillance. "Going after text messages seems to be the next logical step," she said.

Most major cell service providers log details about text messages -- such as when and from where they were sent -- for at least a year, but generally they do not retain message content, according to a Department of Justice report.

Verizon keeps message content for three to five days; Virgin Mobile, which is owned by Sprint, retains it for 90 days, according to the August 2010 report. …