Which of America's mobile carriers keeps the most intel on you?

The American Civil Liberties Union has unearthed a Department of Justice document called Retention Periods of Major Cellular Service Providers (PDF), which documents the length of time that America's mobile operators retain your texts, IP sessions, call details, and copies of your bills.

Verizon, for example, keeps a list of everyone you’ve exchanged text messages with for the past year, according to the document. But T-Mobile stores the same data up to five years. It’s 18 months for Sprint, and seven years for AT&T.

That makes Verizon appear to have the most privacy-friendly policy. Except that Verizon is alone in retaining the actual contents of text messages. It allegedly stores the messages for five days, while T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint don’t store them at all.

The document was unearthed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina via a Freedom of Information Act claim. (After the group gave a copy to Wired.com, we also discovered it in two other places on the internet by searching its title.)


  1. What is the motivation for the carriers keeping the data this long, other than possibly resolving billing disputes?  It doesn’t seem to be addressing a specific law enforcement need, else you’d think the intervals would be uniform.

    It must be a nightmare to store and manage this data.  You’d think they’d be happy to get rid of it as soon as possible.

    1. I work  for a telecom company which has of late attracted the interest of  federal auditors who check out every record-keeping policy we have . A lot of this stuff is considered business records and we opt to keep them  for 7 years – which seems to be some kind of generally accepted keep-you-out-of-trouble standard. 

  2. “Post-Paid Only?” Is that paid by post? Or after it is paid? If the former, do they not keep records of other payments? If the latter, why specify? I’m sure they keep records of bills pending.

  3. It’s the storage of the IP session and destination information that worries me the most.
    If they are tracking my ip address as connected to my smartphone,
    then they are logging both my physical and internet locations.
    This seems slightly more pernicious than a list of who I text.

  4. Don’t bills have all of the “text message detail” and “call detail records”?  So you have to take that into account for the time frame of those particular records, mainly for Verizon and Sprint it looks like.

  5. If you live in an urban area with a lot of towers then triangulating signal strength at different towers is sufficient to find you within a couple of blocks.

    I know Sprint has a “switch” where they can turn on more data gathering ( including location information) if they want a dataset for their R&D. I assume all these companies have this.

    AT&T may not be storing this data but that doesn’t mean that as it passes through the hands of NSA, NSA doesn’t store it. See Frontline: Spying on the Home Front

    What these companies would want with this data is a) to have as many possibly meaningful attributes as they can to predict purchasing habits on (and other events that may effect their profit) b) predict areas of growth (eg. more towers) c) to sell to others.

  6. Interesting. I just switched form T-mobile to AT&T. I don’t see how T-mobile has no records on billing. Does that make sense?

  7. It’s a chart that simply shows which companies are hedging on what kind of information will have the  most value in the future. I also imagine it’s expensive for them to keep all of this information. 

    Look at how they view their “uncommitted/non-loyal/non contracted” customers info, virtually worthless. In fact,  I would think those customers would be of the most interest to Homeland Security. 

    The two you should be most concerned about is T-Mobile’s and AT&T’s text messaging storage periods. The others are most likely for customer retention/marketing purposes only, the average contract being two years.

  8. They lie.

    I was arrested for domestic violence 3 years ago, and two months after I had been arrested the D.A. subpoenaed records of my phone records and text messages.  They had records dating back 1 year(when I opened my ATT account), including phone calls made/received and text messages made and received INCLUDING the content of those text messages.  

    The text messages helped incriminate me. 

    I no longer use text messages.

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