Your Texts May Not Be As Private As You Think

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From Richard Littlehale of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, explaining why wireless providers should be required to maintain long-term storage of every text message sent by every one of their subscribers:

Most cellular service providers do not retain stored text messages accessible to law enforcement for any time at all. Billions of texts are sent every day, and some surely contain key evidence about criminal activity. 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.

How do you feel about the idea that carriers should store all of your text messages for years at a time “just in case” some law enforcement officer wants access to them someday? Probably about the same way that gun owners feel about proposals to license and register their guns just in case law enforcement wants to track them down someday. In other words, not so great.

In both cases, opposition might be softened if law enforcement were consistently required to get a search warrant before they’re allowed access to your private digital data. But they’re not, and Littlehale warns pointedly against “moving to a probable cause standard where it is not currently required.” This, he says, would have “a negative impact on the time required for law enforcement to conduct certain types of investigations.”

No doubt. Probable cause is certainly a pain in the ass. But if we don’t need it in the digital world, why do we still need it in the physical world? Seems very anachronistic, doesn’t it? One consistent rule for everything would probably be much more convenient.

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