Text vs. phone data: Which is more valuable to the government?

Government tracking of Verizon telephone records raises the question of just how valuable phone information really is. Would it be more useful to track text message records?

Yesterday the National Security agency seized the phone records of millions of Verizon customers through a secret court ruling. But with so many people texting -- as much as or even more -- than they call on the phone, is the NSA phone surveillance really effective?

We asked Bennie Lagos, the chief strategy officer for Susteen, a company that specializes in cell phone forensics, whether it's better for bad guys to text or call?

“I don’t want to comment on that,” Lagos said. Lagos doesn’t want to tip off the bad guys. But he did say the law enforcement and military officials Susteen works with focus a lot on texts.

“Terrorists are given their directives via a text," said Lagos. "So there’s rarely -- if ever -- a voice command.” 

Assuming that the NSA is only going after phone records, isn’t that a big handicap? Lagos said you might not get the smoking gun, but you can still get a lot of intelligence from tracking phone calls and collect enough circumstantial evidence to make an arrest.

But, said Mark Rumold, an attorney at the civil liberty group the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “There’s nothing in this order that appears to exclude text message metadata.”

And he says, if it does, another secret order might include it.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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