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Cops demand that Congress force telecoms to archive all text messages

Published time: December 03, 2012 22:18
Edited time: December 04, 2012 02:18
AFP Photo / Saul Loeb

AFP Photo / Saul Loeb

US cell phone service providers could be required to log personal text messages for upwards of two years if a proposal submitted by a group of law enforcement professionals can successfully plead with Congress.

According to a report published this week by Declan McCullagh of CNet, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association (MCCPA) has asked Congress to consider adding a provision to an electronic privacy bill awaiting vote that would make holding onto text logs mandatory for the country’s telecom providers.

In recent weeks, the antiquated Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) has been in the news due to congressional efforts to update the legislation to reflect the growing nature of the Internet. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amendment to the act that, if passed by Congress, will require law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant to collect personal emails older than 180 days. Currently, only an easy-to-obtain administrative court order is needed to access private emails, meaning any archived correspondence contained on the digital cloud can be collected by the police without producing any probable cause to a judge. Should the MCCPA have their way, however, efforts to make it harder for law enforcement to eavesdrop on emails would be cancelled out by the widespread collection of text messages.

In demanding that telecoms be mandated to collect and store text message sent over their networks, MCCPA spokesman Chuck DeWitt tells CNet, "all such records should be retained for two years.”

"This issue is not addressed in the current proposal before the committee and yet it will become even more important in the future," warns the group, which represents members of police departments from New York City, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. Should the association be able to convince Congress to approve their proposed legislation, the 6 billion-or-so text messages sent daily in the United States will be scooped up by telecoms and kept on file for possible use by the police in later cases.

Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Cnet his group “would oppose any mandatory data retention mandate as part of ECPA reform," claiming the MCCPA’s ideas are "a different kettle of fish – it doesn't belong in this discussion.”

Privacy expert Hanni Fakhoury adds to McCullagh’s report, "These data retention policies serve one purpose: to require companies to keep databases on their customers so law enforcement can fish for evidence.” Should the MCCPA’s effort pass Congress, Fakhoury, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says, "this would seem to be done against the wishes of the providers, presumably, since…some of the providers don't keep SMS messages at all."

The Senate and House are expected to vote early next year on an update to the ECPA, which will include the mandatory warrant-provision passed last week.