Search and Seizure

Text Message Privacy Depends on How It's Sent

Facebook messages have more legal protection than phone texts


Internet-based text message apps are one of the most common means of communicating today. But when it comes to this relatively new technology, surveillance law is behind the times in important ways, and as is so often the case when the law lags technology, our privacy suffers as a result.

Text messages have for some time been a cash cow for the wireless carriers—back in 2007, annual global SMS revenue was estimated to be 60 billion dollars. Charging consumers 25 cents per 140 character text message is a great way to make money, but when those same consumers are already paying for internet connectivity to their smartphones, the market was ripe for disruption. In recent years, a number of internet companies have entered the text message market. In some cases, they have offered low-cost or free SMS services that interoperate with the carriers' existing SMS system. In other cases, large companies like Facebook, Apple and WhatsApp have offered closed text message services to their smartphone using customers. Often seeking to reduce their monthly telephone bills, millions of consumers have migrated from smartphone text message services provided by the wireless carriers to smartphone text message services provided by internet companies.