Kobe Bryant's accuser, David Beckham and Denver high school students have learned a similar lesson: text messages are not nearly as private as we may want them to be. Are employers, police officers and homeland security officials entitled to read your text messages? Click here to read a primer answering these questions and others.
At a high school in Colorado, a dispute over text messages is sparking a debate about the line between discipline and privacy.
It all began when a student at Monarch High School in suburban Denver was hauled into the principal's office on suspicion of smoking cigarettes on school grounds. The principal searched the student's backpack and pockets but did not come up with any evidence of improper activity, says Mark Silverstein, legal director at ACLU Colorado.
"It's the next step that went too far. After administrators found nothing in the backpack, found nothing in the pockets, they took the student's cell phone and began reading the text messages," Silverstein says.
After finding mentions of marijuana, the administrators confiscated the cell phones of several of the student's friends as well. Some of the information obtained from the texts landed in the students' discipline files.
School officials won't confirm or deny this version of events. The situation has infuriated many students; one even opted to destroy her phone rather than share its contents, says Matt Menezes, a Monarch sophomore.
"She knew that that had been happening to a lot of her friends, so she smashed it rather than give it up," he says. "It's not like they have any justification for it at all. ... I'd probably break my phone, too."
Other students say that while the principal may have had good intentions, the ends did not justify the means.
"If he had seen some sort of security threat or had some issue he wanted resolved, he could have read the text messages, but I feel he just took the whole issue too far," says Andrew Locke, a junior at the school.
Exactly how far is appropriate for schools to go in such matters is murky terrain. A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1985 established that schools have more latitude to search students than police officers do.
But can the schools go so far as to search text messages? Boulder Valley School District spokesman Briggs Gamblin says yes.
"We believe reasonable suspicion existed to seize the cell phone, and to transcribe the information in the cell phone," he says.
University of Colorado law professor Paul Ohm sees it differently.
"Schools can't look in backpacks or purses based on completely a lack of suspicion, and nor will a court say they can look in a cell phone with no suspicion," Ohm says.
If the case were to go to court, Ohm says, the school district would have to explain thoroughly why it did what it did. If it was a frivolous search, he says, the ACLU has a case. Colorado has a history of taking privacy matters seriously: State law prohibits the recording of electronic communication without the consent of the sender.
At the very least, the search violates state law, the ACLU says. Youngsters today treat cell phones as personal diaries, the organization says, and thereby the administrators overstepped the line.
"There's just so much more potential when searching a cell phone or an e-mail archive, to uncover information that has no relevance to the object of the search, but yet could reveal many private and personal matters," Silverstein says.
The ACLU is demanding that the school adopt a policy that prohibits administrators from searching cell phone text messages. Both sides say they want to avoid going to court, but some privacy advocates say they hope that's exactly where the case is headed.
"I think it's a very good issue for a court to consider, and I think it's important to draw some lines with new technology," says Mark Rottenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Whether or not it is sued, the district will likely adopt a definitive policy governing cell phones, Gamblin says.
"You know five, six years ago, with cell phones, we were simply worried about conversations going on when kids should be listening in class, phones ringing and disturbing the teacher while they were trying to teach, but we weren't worried about pictures, we weren't worried about text messages," he says.
Some schools have banned phones, but he says he doubts Boulder Valley's new policy will go that far.
hide captionSoccer star David Beckham promotes his golden mobile phone on Nov. 28. Several years earlier, private text messages supposedly between him and a lover appeared in British tabloids.
Torsten Blackwood/Getty Images
Soccer star David Beckham, convicted spy Ryan Anderson and a group of students at Monarch High School in Denver have in common one element of their dramatically different personal histories — text message humiliation. Although the consequences of their experiences were different (a damaged relationship, jail time and a marred school file, respectively), the lesson was the same: Text messages are not nearly as private as we may want them to be.
Determining when others are entitled to see our text messages is murky terrain, experts in digital law say. That's partly because the way we use text messages is changing so quickly. What is clear is that the issue requires attention.
"My general advice is that with text messages, like e-mail, you shouldn't write anything you don't want to see on the front page of the New York Times," says attorney Jonathan Handel, who specializes in digital media law for the firm TroyGould.
The following information might help you decide which juicy bits of information are worth thumb-typing:
Can my boss snoop through my text messages?
In some cases. If your employer provided you with the phone for work purposes, it's perfectly legal for your supervisor to look through your text messages, media lawyers say. Requesting to see messages on your personal phone, however, is a different story. "It would be like reading someone's diary," says Cathryn L. Hazouri, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado. If you were to become involved in a civil lawsuit, however, your employer could obtain access to your personal text messages in order to determine, for example, whether you were romancing a subordinate or leaking company secrets.
Does a police officer have the authority to inspect my texts?
Only if someone's life is on the line — or a warrant is issued. Just because you are at an airport or a high-profile political event does not mean it's legal for a police officer to peruse your personal messages on a whim. "With the police officer, without a warrant it's unlikely," Handel says, "unless there is an imminent threat on life."
Can a teacher confiscate a student's phone?
In some cases. If a student throws a paper airplane across a classroom, a teacher has the right to confiscate it. Similarly, a teacher is entitled to appropriate a cell phone if the student is using it in a way that is disruptive to the learning environment, Hazouri says. The teacher doesn't have the right to read the text messages, though, unless there is a "reasonable suspicion" that there is something going on that involves illegal activity, such as drugs, and is disruptive to the school.
If the student feels uncomfortable sharing his or her SMS exchanges with a teacher, Hazouri recommends that the student ask for a parent to be present. "Students have the right to have their parents present for any type of interrogation," she says.
Can a password on my phone protect my texts from intruders?
Not really. Although the password might give you some extra time to figure out how to deal with the situation, when the employer or teacher is legally entitled to see your text messages, only a James Bond-style self-destructing phone could maintain your privacy. (And even then, your texts could possibly be obtained from the phone company — not to mention that you might be charged with possessing an explosive device.)
Does typing "bomb" add me to a terrorism suspect list?
It's a possibility. Outside high-level homeland security circles, it's difficult to verify what sorts of text screening procedures are used, if any at all. "Technologically, it's possible," says Handel, who was a computer scientist before he was a lawyer. "They are going through telephone company computers, so there is no reason the anti-terrorism agency couldn't go through the texts." Generally, the government would have to get a subpoena for such activity. As the case of alleged cocaine kingpin Antoine Jones illustrated last year, however, it's easier to obtain a warrant to monitor message logs than real-time texts.
If I text a vote to a reality show, who sees my information?
How long do phone companies hold on to copies of text messages?
There is no across-the-board policy. Verizon keeps messages for two days, says Jeffrey Nelson, the company's executive director of corporate communications. Most cell phone companies report similar figures. But in several cases — most famously Kobe Bryant's quest to obtain his alleged rape victim's texts — the messages were located in companies' databases long past the supposed time of deletion.