How long does your mobile phone provider store data for law enforcement access?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been trying to obtain the when, why and how law enforcement uses cell phone location data to track Americans. Today the ACLU posted the 2010 cell photo data retention chart received from the Justice Department via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. "Retention Periods of Major Cellular Providers" was meant "to advise law enforcement agents seeking to obtain cell phone records." Mobile phone providers store data ranging from text messages, to pictures, IP addresses, browsing history, cell towers used and call logs.

For example in location tracking, since July 2008, AT&T indefinitely keeps data about which cell towers were used by your phone. Verizon stores your cell-site data for "1 rolling year." Sprint and Nextel keep it for 18 - 24 months. Virgin Mobile's is 'not retained' but can be obtained through Sprint.

If law enforcement is so inclined as to find out, then the "details" of your text messages are conveniently kept by AT&T for "post paid 5 - 7 years;" it does not retain the text message content. Verizon holds onto your text message detail for "1 rolling year" and your actual text content for "3 - 5 days." In case you were wondering, the "details" are like text "call" history which generally includes the date, time, sender's phone number and receiver's phone number. T-Mobile does not retain the message content, but hangs onto your text details for "pre-paid: 2 years; post-paid: 5 years." Sprint and Nextel hold text detail for "18 months" depending upon the device. Virgin Mobile which is owned by Sprint keeps text detail for "60 - 90 days" and the text message content for "90 days {search warrant required with "text of text" request}." Wow, at least one had the decency to mention a warrant is required.

Verizon keeps your IP session information for 1 year but your browsing history "IP desitination information" for 90 days. While T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile store neither, both Nextel and Sprint store IP addresses and browsing history for 60 days. AT&T IP session and destination info is "only retained on non-public IPS for 72 hours. If public IP, not retained."

Picture retention is a bit iffy for some as in "contact provider," according to the handy DOJ chart for law enforcement. However T-Mobile stores pictures "online and are retained until deleted or service is canceled." You can see even more data retention information on the August 2010 chart, but it's unknown if mobile phone providers have changed any of this information since the DOJ's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section compiled this "secret memo" for cops.

One of the questions this chart for law enforcement raises is why aren't data retention policies revealed in cell phone company user agreements? The ACLU asked, shouldn't cell phone companies "justify why they are hanging onto information that doesn't serve a business purpose, like the content of your text messages? After all, your phone records are *your records,* and the information they reveal can be strikingly personal - you shouldn't be kept in the dark about who has access to them and for how long."

Mike German, ACLU policy counsel and a former FBI agent, said to ReasonTV, "The government has no right to pick through your private information just because that's technologically possible." Even if you were "doing nothing wrong" and were "no threat whatsoever," once the government has the info about you, it "can hold that information on you forever." The recent interview covered the top threats to American's civil liberties since 9/11, ranging from "new interpretations of the Fourth Amendment to law enforcement's fascination with vast empires of data to 'fusion centers' that pool sources among intelligence agencies and local police."

It's a very interesting six minute interview which included German mentioning the FBI's Investigative Data Warehouse which in 2008 contained "1.5 billion records." Who knows how many are stored there now? CBS once wrote, "Called Investigative Data Warehouse (IDW) computer system, they describe it as 'one-stop shopping' for FBI agents. Imagine it as a Google search engine for more than 650 million records. One person even called it 'uber-Google'."

Like the eye-opening mobile phone provider chart the ACLU obtained, German said of the surveillance laws and data being collected about Americans, "Even if they can't use the information today, they think some technological algorithm is going to be developed that will allow them to see patterns in the flow of data; that allow them to predict future criminal activities. But what I always told them is if somebody had some kind of process in which to predict the future, they wouldn't be selling it to law enforcement; They'd be selling it to Wall Street and they'd be selling it to Las Vegas."

Peachy, so there's no telling how much other data, like the cell phone record data, is being retained about Americans but that we do not yet know exists.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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