When It Comes to Cell Phone Privacy, You're an Open Book

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Few people would willingly carry around a device that tracks their movements, records their conversations, and keeps tabs on all the people they talk to. But, according to documents recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union, cell phone companies are doing all of that -- and may be passing the information on to law enforcement agencies.

"Retention Periods of Major Cellular Service Providers," an August 2010 document produced by the Department of Justice, outlines the types of information collected by various cell phone companies, as well as the amount of time that they retain it. On some levels, this is reassuring: Verizon (VZ) is the only company that holds on to text message content, and they erase it after 3-5 days. However, text message details -- the information about who you text with -- is retained for a minimum of a year, with some companies keeping it for up to seven years. In other words, that little back-and-forth you had with Bernie Madoff back in 2007 will be on the books until 2014.

Who Did You Call?

But what about your phone calls? While the content of your calls -- the things that you say -- is not recorded, all of the major carriers hold onto the information about the people you talked to for at least a year, with some retaining it for as long as seven years. And your phone bill, which can be used to check some of your calls, is kept by most companies for at least three years.

Your cell phone can also be used to track you: information about the cell towers used by your phone -- which law enforcement agencies can use to reconstruct your movements -- is held for at least a year, with some providers retaining it indefinitely. On the bright side, a federal judge recently ruled that these cell phone records are private, and can't be released without a warrant, which means that the g-men won't be able to check your whereabouts unless they can demonstrate that your records are "material to an ongoing criminal investigation."

There is other good news: pictures are only retained by two providers -- Verizon and T-Mobile -- and then, only at the cell phone user's discretion. In other words, if you are worried that those pictures you took last week may send the wrong message to the police, now might be a good time to erase them. As for information about the sites you have accessed from your smart phone, that is only retained for between 60 days and one year.

But most companies hold on to phone bills for at least three years, and these, too, could be used to reconstruct some of your calling habits. In this regard, T-Mobile is the most privacy-aware company: it doesn't retain records at all. Sprint (S) and AT&T (T) both keep records for up to seven years.

Who Keeps Your Secrets?

If you're concerned about privacy, the best cellular provider is either Verizon or T-Mobile. Verizon holds on to most records for just a year, and retains your phone bill for a maximum of five years. T-Mobile, on the other hand, doesn't hold onto IP information, bill copies, or text message content, and retains cell tower info for a comparatively short six months to one year. On the opposite end of the spectrum, AT&T is a treasure trove of information: it keeps details about your phone calls and texts for a minimum of five years, and has retained all of its cell tower information since July 2008.

In a broader context, the issue of electronic privacy is currently on center stage. As Wired recently noted, the DOJ document may shed some new light on Senator Patrick Leahy's (D-Vermont) efforts to amend the Stored Communications Act. Currently, the government does not need to show probable cause to access e-mails or electronic information that has been stored on a server for more than six months.

But even Leahy's proposal would not limit government access to cell phone records. In other words, if you need to have a conversation that you'd prefer the FBI not know about, you might want to stick to pay phones!

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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robert

if you use Android phone, check Anti Spy Mobile Free in Google Play - https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.antispycell.free

scans your phone for spywares for seconds, and it's free

June 26 2012 at 6:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nosuckerhere

Yeah, if you believe that government and law enforcement actually get warrants to obtain your phone records or that they don't simply eavesdrop on you, then you're dumber than you think. Government actually has intel offices set-up within each phone company. The patriot act has destroyed any and all privacy. Unless you want anyone and everyone knowing your business, keep your mouth shut, period! This goes for pictures, video, and texting as well. We are under assault people, by your own government, using your tax dollars against you. They are going to do everything in their power to have their one world government and control everything you do and say. Call it conspiracy theory and giggle it away if you want. All you have to do is open your eyes and look at what's going on around you. I don't mean get your empirical evidence from the bought and paid for ***** media either. They are the mouthpiece and propogandist spewing turds that really don't care about reporting facts if the facts run contrary to their masters agenda. All one can do is feel sorry for those who go thru life willingly being tricked, lied to, and bamboozled. If the truth is too much to handle and you prefer being the suckerbob with their heads buried in the sand, well, there is no hope for you. Go back to sleep, while your country is ripped to shreds around you, and sold off to the lowest bidder. Just don't cry about it when you realize that you nor your kids have any future. WAKE UP AMERICA!!! We will NOT survive another Bush/Obama election. Do your OWN homework and you'll come to the conclusion everone else is coming to. Ron Paul is THE only choice if we are going to save our Republic.

November 29 2011 at 7:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eyespy37

I have been looking at cell phone security lately. It scary .... very scary.. a hacker can listen in on your conversation in the boardroom even when your phone is off! I watched some great videos on hushpockets and I got one at a convention in San Francisco in June 2011. It works in 2-3 seconds. I paid $20 for it.

November 11 2011 at 5:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gingerlead

If you pay so much for a service it should be yours, not open to anyone else without your permission. If they want to see what we do or say or contact the service should not require payment except by those who think they have the right to pry into our lives. They can make up anything to get an excuse apparently, to victimize someone. There were so many spooky tales from GW Bush that no one even went to the mall to by things for Christmas after his '911' emergency date happened and he did nothing to assist people trapped in buildings, jumping to their deaths on live TV. It haunts my heart to think why these things happened and who did it and why. If anyone's phone should be tapped it's the politians in office we pay to protect us!

October 10 2011 at 8:10 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
theweissgeiss

YES KADEN
THOSE WHO COME TO OUR BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY, SHOULD COME IN THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR, THE RIGHT WAY. THOSE WHO ARE ILLEGAL, SNEAK IN SHOW FROM STEP ONE THEY DONT WANT TO BE REAL AMERICANS. ALTHOUGH OUR GOVERNMENT CERTAINLY HAS MESSED UP IN THAT REGARD; THERE ARE MORE ON THE WAY & THEY SHOULD BECOME LEGAL PATRIOTIC, USA FIRST AMERICANS. WE HAVE HAD TO SWALLOW TOO MUCH TOO FAST; GIVE UP THE RIGHTS OF THE PEOPLE & WHAT WE STAND FOR AS POLITICALLY CORRECT. WE WERE ESTABLISHED "UNDER GOD", STILL SHOULD BE, AND FREEDOM TO COME HERE IS NOT FREE, THERE ARE OBLIGATIONS; FIRST AND FOREMOST TO BECOME US CITIZENS, AS YOU HAVE DONE. CORP. AMERICA NEEDS TO STAY PUT; WE NEED THEM AND OUTSOURCING JOBS WE DONT NEED. THIS COUNTRY IS AWESOME; THE GREATEST COUNTRY EVER. WE MUST CARE FOR IT, CONTINUE TO BE ONE NATION UNDER GOD, PROTECT HER AND LET GOD GUIDE HER.

October 03 2011 at 10:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Kaden

just watching the people ptotesting corporate America, calling them greedy,not all corporations are greedy and many are getting fed up with the name calling,, keep up the protest and all you will have is riots and destruction of property, The corporations can leve America, then who will pay for your food stamps and unemployment, we need to think this out, I noticed when they were offered a job many said they did not want one, this is how Europeans brought down thier country ,I am from Scotland, you need to send your kids to Europe for a month, then they will know America is the best,yes it needs improvement ,but do not let the union mafia lead you down the path of self destruction,We took in 20 million people from other countrys, thats to many people for one country to swallow all at once, thats cause of most of you unemployment,reform and we will make it, When we took down the wall in Germany and two countrys united what happend, not enough jobs, thats what we are going through now with 20 million from other countrys, and they are more on the way for your job, were known as the land of milk and honey, make it here and the stupid Americans will take care of us from cradle to grave.I am one of those Europeans I came through the front door,and am now a USA citizen and think everyone should earn thier way into USA,

October 03 2011 at 10:39 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kaden's comment
THIS NEW FORMAT

And your rant relates to cell phone privacy, how? Please at least TRY to stay on topic.

October 03 2011 at 11:10 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Firefox

IS ANYONE SHOCKED BY THIS ARTICLE?????????

NO!

October 03 2011 at 10:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Kaden

We have to make a choice,we have so many people in the USA we can not expect the police to catch all the criminals, do we give up the invasion of the phone for a safer place to live, or put up with crime,I know its a hard choice ,I say let them listen .

October 03 2011 at 10:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Denise

Aaaaaaaaak; too many uneducated people, too little time.

October 03 2011 at 10:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Tresor325

Ok.......but find me a pay phone?? lol

October 03 2011 at 10:15 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply