Obtaining AT&T text message records depends on how a user’s account and phone are set up. According to the Department of Justice, as of 2010, AT&T does not retain the content of text messages. The company may hold onto some text message detail, such as phone numbers texted, for only five to seven years. Generally, text message records are available only when users have either kept the messages on their phones or backed them up using an app.
How to Get Text Transcripts From AT&T – Your Own Phone
You can retrieve messages from AT&T only if you have kept them on your cell phone. Anything that you've deleted is no longer accessible. Note that text messages you've sent might still exist on the device of the person you sent them to, unless they were also deleted. The only way to access your own AT&T text record is if it has been backed up elsewhere.
AT&T offers a Backup & Sync service, which syndicates texts across all your AT&T wireless devices for 90 days. This also allows you to download texts to any device. Likewise, AT&T also provides a messaging app that allows you to back up messages to your cloud.
How to Get Text Messages From AT&T – Someone Else’s Phone
This is tricky, and it depends on the situation. Laws differ regarding how to get text messages from AT&T depending on the relationship of the parties involved.
Read More: Can Voice Mails & Text Messages Be Used As Evidence in a Trial?
Employers and Employees
In City of Ontario v. Quon, the Supreme Court ruled that employers had the right to search cellular devices owned by the employer and used by the employee, if the employer believed the device was being used in such a way that broke workplace rules or the law. A search by the employer must be reasonable (i.e., employers must be able to substantiate their suspicions, rather than going on "gut feelings”), and the employer can search only the device in question. AT&T would not be able to provide any text history, because AT&T does not keep text transcripts.
Parents and Children
If the parents own the phone of the child – provided the child is a minor under the age of 18 – they are legally entitled to the text messages stored on it. However, because AT&T does not log text message histories, parents cannot obtain text transcripts from AT&T. Parents, in the eyes of the law, are seen as having authority over their children under the age of 18, so long as that authority does not constitute abuse or material harm. If the parents purchased the phone for a child over the age of 18, however, the rule would not apply.
Romantic Partners and Just About Anyone Else
There is no legal way to access text messages from AT&T in most cases without a court order. In these cases, your attorney would invoke the Stored Communications Act, as well as any relevant state law. The attorney would draft a letter on your behalf and send it to AT&T, explaining that the text messages are necessary evidence and should be retained by the carrier going forward. AT&T has no obligation to do this, and it may not have any records of past text messages. You would have to procure a subpoena or file an ex parte motion with the court (procedures vary from state to state). This motion is a request for the court to order the other party to make the text messages available directly from the cellular device. In short, a court has to rule to give access to the cellular device for text messages to be inspected, but if they have been deleted and no backup system is in use, there may be no way to retrieve them.
- ACLU: DOJ: Retention Periods of Major Cellular Providers
- The Supreme Court: City of Ontario, California v. Quon
- AT&T: AT&T Messages Backup and Sync
- AT&T: AT&T Messages
- Cornell University Law School: 18 U.S. Code Chapter 121 - Stored Wire and Electronic Communications and Transactional Records Access
- Stay patient and persistent. If you have a situation that legally requires that you gather this information, make sure you present you case in a clear and precise manner to the courts, FBI or any law enforcement involved.
- It is against the law for a cell phone provider to turn over copies of text messages without a court order in accordance with the FCC and the 2006 Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act and Legal Code: Title 18, 2703. It is also a crime to request information on another persons account without their permission or knowledge.