Who has access to my phone conversation and text message records?
Your text and phone records can be seen in more ways than you might know. We'll divide the people who can see them into three categories:
1) Your phone company and affiliates– your service provider and their business partners.
2) Government agencies– federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA), local-level agencies like the police department.
3) Third party persons– anyone that accidentally or knowingly seeks your phone and text records. This includes family, friends, employers, and prospective thieves.
What does a phone record include? For clarity, a "record" in this section is the same thing as a "call log" or a "text log." A "phone record" typically includes: date, time, sender geographic location, recipient phone number, recipient geographic location, and duration of call. A "text record" includes: date, time, and recipient phone number.
Your phone company and affiliates—
Of course they have your phone and text records. The real issue here is: who are they sharing them with... right? Well, if it's an affiliate company... say the paper printing company they outsourced your bill printing to... then that affiliate will have your information. That's just part of life. Good news: that affiliate has to put the same protection standards on your information that the parent company does.
Generally speaking though, phone and text records are considered Consumer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI). This is essentially their "top shelf" data with the most safeguards. This is a highly regulated area of the industry.
Don't expect CPNI information to be sold by them with identifying information about you. That is, they may "sanitize" the data and remove any personally identifying information to sell it to a third party (for example, a market analysis firm). The good news here is, again, this is highly regulated by law—the phone company must always allow for the consumer to "opt-out" of this type of information transfer. Now this "opt-out" may be in the fine print of a user agreement: as simple as a box you check (or don't check), a verbal "yes," or no response to an approval announcement. Click here for more details.
So keep an eye out, if you tell your phone company or anyone that they cannot sell your information; then they absolutely can't. (Unless it's directory information... public information... then they might as well. But it can be unlisted.)
Historically, your phone company must submit all of your call and text records if subpoenaed by a government agency. Your phone company's cooperation is a must or else they get stiff fines and charges brought against them.
This brings us to our next category...
Big Brother. They're watching you.
Not exactly. Historically, if you are involved in a lawsuit or if some lawsuit involves your phone and text records... then they will be handed over to the appropriate court. If you are part of an investigation, then a law agency can obtain your records.
Here's the stuff that you may find a little bit creepy:
The FBI and NSA can subpoena the phone company for phone records without a prior warrant or any obvious reason as a result of the 2001 Patriot Act . The pretense here is to "aide in the halting of terrorism." They can also wire tap, but that's covered in our eavesdropping section.
The reason the Patriot Act raises so many eyebrows is because it makes it illegal for any phone company that has delivered records to a security agency to make it publicly known or even discuss it. That is a big red flag for the potential abuse of civil liberties to a lot of people.
Third party persons–
Third parties—whether your family members, friends, or prospective thieves—aren't supposed to have access to your information. The only real exception is an employer who issued you a company phone; they have the right to make sure you are not abusing company resources.
SCANDAL!: Until just a year ago, many companies were supplying call and text records on anyone! For less than a hundred dollars, these companies would use illegal tactics to gain these records. Tactics included calling the phone companies impersonating the actual phone customer, and requesting phone records (under the pretense they had been lost in the mail).
The issue gained national attention when a Washington D.C. blogger bought former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, former presidential candidate General Welsey Clark's phone records from www.celltolls.com for $89.95 USD. The only information required was "General Clark's cell phone number and our credit card."
Other scandals include international breaches of security. Basically, other countries don't have the privacy laws that we do in the U.S. Entire U.S. customer databases are speculated to have been sold by out-source companies in Israel, India, and other places.
In 2005, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) counted 40 companies that were illegally selling phone records.
Some companies are still advertising call and text records online even though it is illegal! They are breaking the law.
How can another person access my text/call records? Some very real considerations...
1) Spyware- They can plant spyware on your phone. Smartphone security is far from perfect. Smartphones or any phone with an operating system (e.g. BlackBerry, iPhone), really need to be considered as small PCs. This way even if they weren't receiving your bills or accessing your account, they could have a tracker summary of your calls and text sent to a third party computer. Some services can actually record all of your calls and store them as a file on some third party computer.
2) Paper trails- Don't forget about old fashioned paper in this new tech age. Please consider who has access to your phone bills. They deliver the same amount of information as if a person called the customer service center and asked questions. So do you trust your housemates? Does your mailbox have a lock on it or is it open to the public? Even if you are shredding your mail: mix it or use a "confetti" shredder.
3) At the workplace- Your employer has access to all the calls you make with a work phone. For a cellular, they will get the call record at the end of the month. Also, the can legally plant spyware to see who you're calling. They can even use a GPS system to track you.
Pen registers: For landlines on a phone network, your employer can use a pen register. A pen register allows the employer to see a list of phone numbers dialed by your extension and the length of each call. This information may be used to evaluate the amount of time spent by employees with clients.
Summary: Government security agencies and your phone company have lawful access to your phone and text records. Third party persons cannot obtain them legally but may do so with available tools in the marketplace, or through old fashioned snooping & stealing.
Know your rights
Phone company: The security and dissemination of customer information is regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). To learn more, please follow this link:
Government: U.S. security agencies and the police can tap with cooperation from the phone company under Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act 1994 (CALEA).
The National Security Agency can wiretap and seize records without warrant Patriot Act (Title II, Sections 200, 202, 206, 209) for lawful processes.
- 200- Authority to intercept wire, oral, and electronic communications relating to terrorism.
- 202- Authority to intercept wire, oral, and electronic communications relating to computer fraud and abuse offenses.
- 206- Roving surveillance authority under The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.
- 209- Seizure of voice-mail messages pursuant to warrants.
Third party (person): A third party may not gain access to your phone and text records in a non-professional manner.
- Use the solutions under "Is my phone company selling my information"
- You can minimize your paper trail for your monthly statements by switching to E-billing.
- If you have a mailbox, make sure it has a lock on it (many mail boxes in residential areas still don't have locks on them).
- Shred your mail with a confetti shredder.
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