Text messages can sometimes be helpful in criminal investigations, but the messages are stored so briefly by telephone companies that it can often be challenging for law enforcement to obtain them.
That’s according to a recent story from the Columbus Dispatch. With an estimated 5 billion messages sent annually, some major phone companies either do not store messages, or they do so for just a few hours or days, according to the report.
Sometimes by the time law enforcement authorities receive subpoenas or court orders, which are necessary to access messages, the texts are no longer available, according to Brance Johnson, special-agent supervisor of the computer-crimes unit of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation. "Anytime I can't get enough information to solve a case, that's an issue for me," he said, according to the report.
The story quotes a Sprint spokesperson who says the organization doesn’t store messages at all. "We don't keep them. Period," said spokesperson Jason Gertzen. A Verizon Wireless spokesperson said messages were stored, but “for a very, very limited period,” according to the piece.
Privacy advocates, organizations, and others have increased calls in the past year to try to limit law enforcement’s ability to access text messages and other types of stored communications-related data. Some groups have called for legislation to update a law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which specifies standards for law enforcement access to electronic communications and associated data. One organization, the Digital Due Process coalition, formed last year.
Law enforcement sometimes has to move quickly to obtain relevant data, according to the Dispatch story. "We know who to go to at every company," said Johnson. "We strike quickly, and we don't mess around."