Agencies responsible for text message archiving

Government emails aren’t the only electronic messages requiring archiving. Increasingly text messages sent from government-issued mobile devices, and government communications on privately owned mobile devices, are being treated as public records and by law must be disclosed.

"I don't care if it's delivered by carrier pigeon, it's a record," Charles Davis, who was then executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri, told the Gannett news service. "If you're using public time or your public office, you're creating public records every time you hit send."

Agencies may assume their service providers are archiving their data, but many aren’t.

In Washington state, for example, officials looking for records of employees’ text messages were surprised to learn from Verizon that text message content is maintained for only three to five days from the date of transmission/receipt.

And it is up to the agency to save these records. Agencies “can’t use ignorance as an excuse anymore, and shame on any that are using text messaging instead of emailing as a way to evade public records requests,” said the Tacoma, Wash., News-Tribune.

“Government entities that aren’t preserving text messages have plenty of options for complying with public records law. That also means they have no excuse when requests come in,” noted the paper. “The alternative is to forbid their employees from using texts for public business.”

Bonney Lake, outside of Tacoma, does archive its text messages. It implemented the Smarsh archiving platform in 2011 to preserve text messages, a move that was spurred when police officers moved from pagers to smartphones, according to a report in Government Executive.

In an average month, the Bonney Lake IT department said it receives five requests for archived text messages.

The issue of archiving text messages will continue to grow as more individuals adopt this method of communication.

How much texting is government doing?  “It would be impossible to calculate,” according to Slate, how much government business now conducted outside of the officially sanctioned systems. But if, as Pew Research found, 45-year-old cellphone owners send a median of 10 text messages a day, and 28-year-old texters send a median of 40, it probably “isn’t hyperbole to say there are probably a few hundred thousand text messages being exchanged among government officers, elected officials, and staff each and every day,” Slate opined.

For agencies starting down the text archiving road, it might help to separate messages into three groups, according to MobileGuard, a mobile compliance solution provider. Those with a limited number of recipients, which is considered correspondence, should be treated like email. Those used for marketing, which does not need to be archived, and those messages used for advocacy, awareness and public service, which should be preserved as a public record.

Editor's note: This article was changed May 14 to clarify Charles Davis's title.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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