They're everywhere: in cars, shopping malls, and restaurants, even at family and professional sporting events - cell phones. Have you noticed, though, how often a wireless phone isn't being used to actually talk to another person. It seems that more and more, cell phones are used for texting or sending pictures to our friends and family.

Maybe you, too, find yourself using your phone like this, or you hear the non-stop clicking as your teenager texts back-and-forth with a friend. Are all of those text messages and pictures going to and from a cell phone private, or can someone else read the messages or look at the images? Well, that depends on a few things, such as who owns the phone, whether someone's "cleaning" it and why you may need to look those phone records.

General Rules

Your provider or "carrier" keeps records of your cell phone use, including calls and text messages, and even pictures, sent from your phone. Almost all cell phone carriers give detailed information about phone's use in billing statements sent to the owner. These details include when a text message or image was sent from your phone and how much it cost to send it. If you get charged for messages and pictures sent to your phone, the bill likely will show when it was sent. But that's it. The bill doesn't tell you what was written in a text message or show you the picture.

So, what can you do if you want to read or see that information? For example, what if you suspect your spouse of having an extra-marital affair and you want to see if there's some secret texting going on? What if you want to make sure that your teenager isn't sending or receiving inappropriate pictures over the phone, or "sexting?"

As a general rule, the cell phone carrier can't help you. Under federal privacy laws, such as the Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act of 2006, your cell phone carrier can't give you these phone records, even if you own the phone and pay the bill. That's because these records often show messages sent and received by someone else, and that person has privacy rights.

There are some exceptions, though. If you think your phone is being used for criminal activities, or if you're being harassed or threatened through text messages, you may be able to get a court order requiring the phone carrier to release the records. If this is the case, you should talk to an attorney or your local police department immediately.

Also, you should know that some cell phone carriers limit how long text messages and images are stored on their computers. This could be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. So, if you need to see this material, it's a good idea to act quickly.

Other Options

If you own the phone, or if you're dealing with your child's phone use, you may want to consider looking at what's stored in the phone itself. In most instances, you wouldn't be breaking any laws, although you may have an ethical duty not to pry or invade your child's privacy. Most cell phones store messages and pictures until someone "cleans" or deletes items on the phone, or the phone deletes information automatically to make room to store new massages or pictures.

Take care, though, if you snoop around your spouse's phone. Unless you legally own the phone, share it with her, or she lets you look at it, you may open yourself up to a civil suit for invasion of privacy and may have to pay her money damages if you look at messages or pictures on it.

Another option is digital forensics. Here, someone who's highly trained in digital technology - like cell phones and computers - can retrieve text messages and images from the phone even if they've been deleted. Again, to make sure you avoid legal problems with privacy laws, you must be the owner of the cell phone to do this. Or, you may avoid the problem if the phone belongs to your child. Also, keep in mind that it may be expensive to have the phone examined by a forensic specialist.

Tagged as: Communications and Media, Privacy Law, text messages, privacy law lawyer