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Thursday, August 12, 2004

PC Magazine > Messages Can Be Forever

I'm surprised that it's just dawning on people that text messages sent via wirelessly enabled PDAs, pagers and, of course, mobile phones can be retrieved and read by third parties.

This was cast into the light recently when the defense in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case announced that they may investigate text messages sent among Bryant's accuser, a former boyfriend, and another friend.

For those who don't know, SMS (Short Message Service) text messages are not sent in a peer-to-peer-style manner. In other words, SMS-enabled phones do not connect directly. Text messaging is a store-and-forward technology. One person types a message and sends it to the service provider (Cingular, T-Mobile, Verizon, etc.). The provider then sends that message to the intended recipient. This is much the same way e-mail works. And in most circumstances, there's some record of the information contained in these messages left on the server.

At some point, people have to get over the idea that what they do electronically—e-mail, text messaging, surfing Web pages—is ephemeral. Those ones and zeros may occupy very little physical space, but they are eminently retrievable and could dog you for decades. I'm not just talking about messages, either. Your voting record on something as silly as American Idol is likely stored on a server somewhere. So, what if you start using the mobile phone to weigh in on something more important, like your opinion about the upcoming presidential election? You may suddenly be pigeonholed as a Democrat or Republican supporter.

SMS is not, however, exactly like e-mail. The messages have one severe limitation: Most can be no longer than 160 characters—unlike e-mail, where the limitless capacity of mail servers allows people to blather on for thousands of incriminating characters. This does mean that whatever messages remain on servers will probably be cryptic, at best.

Even so, it's worth checking with your cell-phone service provider to see what kind of SMS storage policy it maintains. Does it store everything it forwards, or only store messages until it forwards them and knows that the message was successfully received? Perhaps it holds onto the messages for a few (or more) days. Verizon, for example, automatically stores messages for up to five days (in case the recipient's phone is turned off). Verizon's text-messaging FAQ also says users can store text messages for as long as they like, but isn't clear on whether the messages are stored on the cell phone or on Verizon's servers.

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