Text messages basics

More and more text messages are showing up in new stories. If I delete all messages from my phone and the person I sent them to deletes all messages, are they anywhere else and is so are they treated with the same privacy laws that other communication is?

I’m pretty sure that carriers do not retain copies of delivered messages (messages not delivered will be retained in a queue until they are delivered or time-out). They do retain a record of transactions, though, so information about what communications you made and to whom (and which cell tower they were made from) are retained for billing purposes.

However, because phones use flash memory, deleted texts can be recovered off a phone a long time after they were deleted, depending on use/memory size/other factors. The wear levelling algorithm used ensures that recently deleted texts are most likely to survive.

In both cases, I would expect that a warrant would be required to allow authorities access to either the phone or carrier records.


I thought that text messages could be retrieved by police from the cellular provider. I’ve read of cases where they’ve done it, but maybe they have to get them before much time has passed.

In a typical week in the UK, about 1 billion text messages are sent - that’s 160 terabytes of message data (and would probably occupy at least more than 200 terabytes of storage after taking into sender/recipient information and storage overhead) - just for one week.

That’s not as scary an amount of storage as it used to be, but I can’t see the phone companies wanting to store it for any longer than is absolutely necessary.

This is anecdotal, but I knew a guy who worked at one of the larger phone companies who suspected that his wife was cheating on him. He got an employee discount on phone service so her phone was in his name. He was able to access the account and print out a few pages worth of sent and received text messages. I don’t know if they do it anymore, this happened probably 7 or 8 years ago, but at one point at least one company kept some record of text messages.