Texting: What to Consider When Sending Secrets 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. Privacy issues related to SMS messaging wade into murky legal waters.
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Texting: What to Consider When Sending Secrets

Soccer 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 hide caption

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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?

It's hard to be sure. The only way to know exactly what your information will be used for is to read the privacy policy of the show or company. If you can't find the policy, the only way to ensure that your number won't be sold to a marketing list is to vote another way, experts say.

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.