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Should cops be able to read all your old text messages?

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When you send a text message or an email, should your Internet or phone company hang onto them in case the police ever want to take a look? That was the discussion on Capitol Hill yesterday, as lawmakers look into overhauling the federal law that covers when the authorities can get access to electronic communications and when they can’t.

“We are not proposing that this information be turned over or reviewed in mass,” says Richard Littlehale, assistant special agent in charge of technical services for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation,  gave testimony in support of preserving messages. “We are simply trying to make sure that these messages are there if and when we identify a specific criminal offense.”

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, says some Internet and phone companies already store messages, while others don’t. This is something he hopes will change.

“If some providers don’t keep them at all, and I’m a bad guy, I want to use that provider,” says Burns.

But Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union says forcing service providers to keep messages is like giving investigators round-the-clock surveillance capability.

“We always want police to solve crime, but we need a balance,” says Calabrese. “Our founding fathers understood that the police would be better able to solve crimes if they could kick down anyone’s door, but the fact is it’s not the kind of society we want to live in.”

Congress is looking to update a law passed in 1986 that of course predates both texting and the Internet. But it’s not without its anachronisms. For example, it gives much more privacy protection to email that sits on your hard drive compared to email that’s stored remotely on the so-called cloud.

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