General Question

norah's avatar

Can texts be tracked after the fact by the phone companies, like calls can? If so, is it only who who texted and not the content, or is that info saved somewhere?

Asked by norah (241points) June 10th, 2009

I’m thinking of how they use this stuff in criminal investigations.

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12 Answers

robmandu's avatar

What’s possible and what’s actually done are different things.

It’s possible that they have every bit of discernible information available for every call, SMS, MMS, ping, web site, whatever that you’ve made.

However, it’s not often sustainable to keep all of the content. It’s just too much to store cost effectively. In those cases, the transaction logs (from, to, datetime, limited other info) are probably kept for some period of time.

Now, if your communication contains certain keywords – like: bomb, nuclear, agent, biological, New York City, or similar themes – then it’s possible that certain rules are in place to make special copies of those communications for later review, investigation, possible prosecution – depending on your country’s legal constraints.

And that’s not counting in ECHELON and any whatever the alphabet soup of US and foreign intelligence agencies might have sniffing on the wire.

Personal privacy isn’t as well protected as we’d all like. I suggest operating under the assumption of what’s possible. But not to work up too much of a sweat about it.

DarkScribe's avatar

They have to store the content as quite often the recipient is not in range or turned off. With the low cost of multi terrabyte storage nowadays, they don’t need to clear data storage as often. There have been publicised cases here (Australia) of text messages being used years after they were sent when instigating a murder of missing person. Only the carriers know how long they really keep them.

LexWordsmith's avatar

see David Bri’s non-fiction book-length essay The Transparent Society.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

I don’t know the details, but I’m sure they can be. I’ve talked with people who have worked for cell phone companies before, and a few of them talked about also being able to view pictures that are sent back and forth. Which could be pretty embarrassing for a lot of people when you think about it…

robmandu's avatar

Here’s a fun short story by Cory Doctorow: Scroogled.

It makes the point well enough, methinks.

LexWordsmith's avatar

oops, that was supposed to be “David Brin”; gotta check my typing.

alive's avatar

yes they can be tracked. but often enough in a criminal investigation, one of the people involved (either the sender or the receiver) will save the conversation to show police (if the person is smart, the texts will not be self incriminating).

norah's avatar

Is there any way to have unrecorded, untraceable, unretrievable text-based interactions (that’s not in person)?

alive's avatar

not that i know of. someone who is tech savvy and familiar with a phone company might know. but my guess is no. phone campanies could care less what you are saying, but they keep track of texts because they need to know how much to charge you on your bill (even if you have an unlimited text plan). it is to keep track of the service they are providing.

robmandu's avatar

@norah, you’d need some sort of encryption/decryption at both ends.

I think that RIM provides something along those lines for their corporate customer’s Blackberry-based emails. (They certainly do for the U.S. government.)

But as far as your basic SMS text message goes, no there is not. Nor will there be. You see, part of what makes SMS possible is that it’s shoehorned into the telephony protocol. As part of that approach, one compromise made was to limit the message site to 160 7-bit characters.

If 140 bytes is all they have to play with, then there’s no room for serious encryption. Hence why encrypted email would be your best bet.

DarkScribe's avatar

@norah Is there any way to have unrecorded, untraceable, unretrievable text-based interactions

Only with heavily encrypted email. Not SMS. You could possibly incorporate an encrypted message in a file disguised as a MMS file and send that, but you would to use a computer to encode and decode it, so you might as well use email.

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