The cell phone service providers Virgin Mobile and Verizon retain the content of text messages, according to a Justice Department memo obtained by the America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina.
Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Nextel, and Virgin Mobile all retain information relating to text messages, such as who the text messages were sent to and when, but only Verizon and Virgin Mobile retain the actual content of the text messages. Virgin Mobile keeps text message content for 90 days and Verizon keeps it for 3 to 5 days.
The Justice Department document, “Retention Periods of Major Cellular Providers,” was published in 2010 as a guide for law enforcement agents seeking to obtain cell phone records.
The document also reveals that Verizon, Sprint and Nextel retain IP session and destination information, potentially allowing law enforcement to ascertain what sites someone has visited on their cell phone.
Information that could be used to determine the movement of a cell phones is also retained by the cell phone service providers. Cell phones continuously transmit data to cell-sites scattered across the nation and cell phone service providers keep records of the this geolocational data, essentially recording the physical movement of anyone carrying a cell phone.
Verizon and T-Mobile keep that data for one year, Sprint and Nextel keep it up to two years, and AT&T keeps it indefinitely.
ACLU affiliates in 34 states across the U.S. have filed public records requests seeking information from law enforcement agencies as to when, why and how they are using cell phone location data to track Americans.
"The ability to access cell phone location data is an incredibly powerful tool and its use is shrouded in secrecy," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. "The public has a right to know how and under what circumstances their location information is being accessed by the government."