Retrieving text messages sometimes can be easy

New England Patriots locker-room employees Jim McNally and John Jastrzemski engaged in a series of sometimes vulgar, always entertaining series of text messages that, according to the National Football League, implicated star quarterback Tom Brady in the teams efforts to use underinflated footballs in the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens.

“Tom sucks … im going make that next ball a [expletive] balloon,” McNally wrote to Jastrzemski after Brady complained about the inflation levels of the balls used in a game in October versus the New York Jets.

How did the NFL investigators get the text messages? Simply by asking. According to the report, the Patriots handed over the cell phones of five employees. These were given to Renaissance Associates, a investigation firm based in Garden City, N.Y., which used forensic imaging software to create perfect copies of all data stored on each phone. Most of the apparently damning text messages were copied from the phone belonging to Jastremski, an equipment assistant for the Patriots.

Could the unseemly texts have been obtained through other means? Perhaps, if the investigators had been able to obtain subpoenas for cell phone company records. These companies keep “metadata” records of customers’ text messages for billing purposes. This includes date and time of the message, and the recipient’s phone number. In some cases, the actual messages may also be saved for a time. This way, if a recipient’s phone is turned off, his incoming message can be delivered later, when the phone is back online.

But cellular companies have no fixed policy on how long the messages are stored. Verizon, T-mobile and Sprint, for instance, delete their copies of messages after delivering them. But AT&T did not respond when asked about their message retention policies.

A host of law enforcement agencies have urged Congress to enact legislation that would require cellular carriers to keep copies of all text messages sent by their customers. Such a law would enable investigators to obtain messages sent months or years earlier.

But worries over privacy have led millions of smartphone users to adopt texting software that encrypts all messages, making them unreadable to any but the sender and receiver. Such messages can also be programmed to “self-destruct” after they’re read, so that investigators could no longer retrieve them from the phones.

Of course, the two could also have deleted the messages from the phones themselves.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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