Law Enforcement Pushing For Law Requiring All Text Messages To Be Logged
If certain law enforcement organizations get their way, every text message you send will be logged by your carrier so that they can be read in the course of a criminal investigation if necessary:
AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and other wireless providers would be required to capture and store Americans’ confidential text messages, according to a proposal that will be presented to a congressional panel today.
The law enforcement proposal would require wireless providers torecord and store customers’ SMS messages — a controversial idea akin to requiring them to surreptitiously record audio of their customers’ phone calls — in case police decide to obtain them at some point in the future.
“Billions of texts are sent every day, and some surely contain key evidence about criminal activity,” Richard Littlehale from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation will tell Congress, according to a copy (PDF) of his prepared remarks. “In some cases, this means that critical evidence is lost. Text messaging often plays a big role in investigations related to domestic violence, stalking, menacing, drug trafficking, and weapons trafficking.”
Littlehale’s recommendations echo a recommendation that a constellation of law enforcement groups, including the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, the National District Attorneys’ Association, and the National Sheriffs’ Association, made to Congress in December, which was first reported by CNET.
They had asked that an SMS retention requirement be glued onto any new law designed to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act for the cloud computing era — a move that would complicate debate over such a measure and erode support for it among civil libertarians and the technology firms lobbying for a rewrite.
This is hardly the first time that the issue of data retention has come up in the context of electronic communication, though:
While the SMS retention proposal could open a new front in Capitol Hill politicking over electronic surveillance, the concept of mandatory data retention is hardly new. The Justice Department under President Obama has publicly called for new laws requiring Internet service providers to record data about their customers, and a House panel approved such a requirement in 2011.
Wireless providers’ current SMS retention policies vary. An internal Justice Department document (PDF) that the ACLU obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows that, as of 2010, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint did not store the contents of text messages. Verizon did for up to five days, a change from its earlier no-logs-at-all position, and Virgin Mobile kept them for 90 days. The carriers generally kept metadata such as the phone numbers associated with the text for 90 days to 18 months; AT&T was an outlier, keeping it for as long as seven years.
This news comes at the same time that two unlikely allies — Americans for Tax Reform and the American Civil Liberties Union — have announced the formation of a joint project dedicated to Internet Privacy and meant to counter the efforts of law enforcement to grant themselves greater powers as part of reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act:
Our proposal is simple: All private communications and documents stored online with service providers should have the same protections from unreasonable search and seizure as material locally stored. If government agencies want to read emails, they should go to court, show probable cause to believe a crime is being committed and obtain a search warrant just as they would for postal mail and telephone calls.
We do not intend our reforms in any way to impede investigations of terrorism or serious crimes such as child pornography. We leave in place laws regarding child pornography. We preserve emergency exceptions for cases posing immediate threat of harm. We do not touch authorities for national security investigations and international terrorism. Our reforms focus on ordinary investigations, and all we are saying is that the warrant standard established by the Constitution for privacy in the physical world should also protect privacy in the digital world.
Today we announce the launch of Digital 4th, an effort by the Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Tax Reform to give digital content the warrant protection the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires.
It is time to reaffirm in law what most Americans assume is an essential guarantee of living in the U.S.: that government power should be subject to basic checks and balances.
Sounds like a good idea to me.