Permanently Erasing Text Messages

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Q: I deleted a bunch of old text messages from my cell phone and can't find them anymore but heard that they could still be accessed. Is this true?

A: Maybe the recent news that Apple was awarded a patent filed two years ago for what is being called anti-sexting software reminded you that there are some unsavory text messages from your past that you want to make sure nobody can dig up. Or maybe you're just doing some cleaning and would sleep more soundly knowing that your personal information has been wiped from all mobile devices. Either way, I don't have the best news for you.

There are two problems here: Erasing the unwanted messages from your phone itself and then erasing them from the servers controlled by your mobile provider. Both are more difficult than you might expect.

When you "delete" a text message from your cell phone -- accessing the messaging menu, removing the messages from either your inbox or sent messages folder -- you're actually just removing a placeholder and letting the phone know that it can write data over that existing file. The file will remain on your phone until something is created to be placed over it and, depending on your cell phone's capacity and your usage habits, that can take a very long time. Advanced software that promises to scrub your data from phones (or computer hard drives) just overwrites the old files with zeroes, ones and random data. According to a Slate Explainer column, computer experts can recover data even after its been "cleaned" dozens of times.

How incriminating are these old messages that you're trying to erase? Sure, forensic computer experts might be able to track them down, but odds are, if you can't find them anymore, neither can most of the people you're attempting to keep them from.

Even after you've deleted your messages from your phone, though, records could still exist with your mobile provider. While some European countries are required to store text messages for law enforcement purposes, no similar law exists in the United States. Some providers, like Cingular Wireless, reportedly keep messages in an archive for seven days before purging them while others, like Verizon, never store them at all. Practices differ from one carrier to the next and, if you're really curious, you'll have to contact a customer service provider as they can change without notice.

More questions? View the complete Toolkit archive.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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