Can the police find my text messages or chat history without access to my phone? (2023)

Privacy has been a concern just about as long as mobile phones have existed. Whether it is the ability of law enforcement to listen in on phone calls or what happens to the personal information we share with big tech companies, increasingly individuals are concerned about who can access their data and why. If you are concerned about the police finding your text messages or chat history without actually having access to your phone, this is the right article for you. We look at some of the most common questions that we get in relation to police powers to access mobile phones and their contents.

What can the police do with your phone?

A good place to start is the general police powers in relation to seizing and investigating mobile phone evidence. We’ve published a comprehensive guide on this topic, but this is what you need to know in summary:

  • The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) gives the police broad ranging powers to confiscate mobile phones where they have reasonable grounds to believe that the phone itself, or the information contained in its memory, is evidence relevant to a crime under investigation.
  • The police may also retain any information found on a mobile phone if they believe it is relevant to other crimes being investigated or could be used in future criminal investigations (for example, text messages revealing gang communications might be relevant to historic and current crimes, as well as future ones).
  • Police forces are allowed to retain your phone for as long as they need to in order to conduct their investigations, and they have no duty to inform you of when you might expect it back.
  • If the police have not obtained your phone in person, there are limited occasions where they can access your phone remotely, known as ‘tapping’ your phone. These are detailed below.

Can the police tap your phone?

Tapping a phone implies that the police haven’t used their ordinary powers of confiscation and seizure under PACE 1984 in order to obtain evidence from your device in person. Indeed, tapping implies that the police might be able to secure information from your phone without actually being in possession of it, and to get new and existing information while you are still using it.

The short answer is that, yes, the police can tap your phone. They have the ability to do so given the advent of complex technologies that allow the police to listen into phone calls, intercept text messages and other written communications, and copy data that is being transmitted to the cloud.

In order for the police to tap your phone, however, they must have a warrant from the court giving them this permission. Note that even if the police have stopped and searched you in the street, this is not a good enough reason for them to tap your phone in future.

Some exceptions to these strict privacy rules apply in suspected child sexual offence or terrorism cases. These are notoriously complex rules, and you should seek the advice of a solicitor immediately if you are concerned your phone might be searched under those exceptions.

Can police remotely access my phone?

Yes, the police may access your phone remotely, but they cannot do so without the requisite court warrant. Obtaining a court warrant means that the police will have had to justify such an intrusion on your rights to privacy. Usually, it is only possible for the police to remotely access someone’s phone in serious criminal cases, such as gang violence, terrorism, trafficking, and child sexual offences cases. That said, if the crime is serious enough, the police may be able to make a strong case for obtaining remote access to your phone, and if that is deemed to be in the public interest, a judge may well grant such permissions.

Can texts be traced?

Generally speaking, it is very easy for the police to determine which phone a text message came from. Where the sender has a contract, typically they will have given their real information to the service provider, and thus it will be easy to find out who owns that phone and service contract.

Tougher situations arise with pay as you go (PAYG) phones that require credit to be added to them. While some people use online or text-based services to pay for credit with a bank card, and as such can be traced easily, others are more stealthy in their approach and instead use cash at a shop to top up their cards, which makes it harder for the police to identify the individual behind a text message.

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Technologically speaking, it is relatively straightforward for the police to trace text messages. Like with phone calls, text message sending locations can be pinpointed through mobile phone tower triangulation (measuring the amount of time a signal takes to get back to the towers from the phone to determine the sending location).

Can police recover text messages without the phone?

The technologies that the police use to access your phone remotely can indeed give them access to text messages. Text messages that are being sent, or ones that are currently still on the phone, are typically easier to access. Those that have been deleted may still be accessible, but much depends on the technology of the phone’s memory and how long has passed since the message was deleted.

Note that the police can sometimes obtain text message records from mobile phone service providers, but this information generally only shows the date and time that a message was sent, the size of the message in megabytes, and the number to which the message was sent. It, generally, does not show the content of the message.

How far back can police retrieve text messages?

This answer depends on the phone, its memory, whether the message was deleted, and the phone owner’s service provider.

If the messages are still on the phone, the police may be able to access them no matter how long ago they were sent. If the messages were deleted from the device, it might still be possible for the police to obtain the messages (see below).

Where do messages go after they are deleted?

When you delete things from your phone, they are not actually ever deleted instantaneously. They are instead marked in the phone’s memory as being eligible to be overwritten with new data. If you have not yet produced any new data to override that old ‘deleted’ data, the message may still be retrievable.

How long do carriers keep text messages?

If the data is no longer on the device, it might still be possible for the police to obtain the text messages from the phone owner’s service provider, but what can be retrieved, and how long after the fact, varies considerably. Some providers retain data only for a few days, whereas others might hold it for a few months. Likewise, some provide message content, whereas others will provide only the date and time that a message was sent, the size of the message in megabytes, and the number to which the message was sent.

Can police download deleted messages?

Either by accessing the phone’s memory, or by retrieving available data from a mobile phone service provider, the police are able to download deleted text messages. Sometimes, these downloads will contain the actual content of the messages, whereas other times it will only notify the police of the fact that a text was actually sent through the provision of a date/time stamp and information on the recipient.

Can police retrieve deleted Snapchat and whatsapp messages?

If the police have a warrant, they can request your messages from social media companies like Snapchat and WhatsApp, but generally the police will only be able to see your unread messages. This is because companies like Snapchat delete messages from servers as soon as the message is read, or they heavily encrypt them and do not possess the technology to ‘unencrypt’ them.

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Snapchat deletes all messages from its servers right after the recipient reads them. Read messages are gone forever. This means the police can only get access to unread messages.

Can the police go through your social media?

The police may go through your social media as part of an investigation into an offence. With open profiles, they do this without much difficulty, but where a profile is marked private or private communications (like direct messages) are subject to investigation, the police must obtain a warrant and the social media company then must provide the relevant information to the police, if they still have it.

Do police background checks look at texts?

No, police background checks do not look at your text messages, unless certain text messages were evidence in a prior investigation and still remain on police computers. In that case, those text messages could be used as part of the background check, but your current ones will not.

Where to get more help?

If you are concerned about the police obtaining information from your phone, whether in person or remotely, get in touch with the team at Stuart Miller Solicitors today. We have decades worth of experience in this field and have seen how the development of mobile technologies have infringed upon privacy rights over time.


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Can police read your texts without you knowing? ›

In fact, in most states in America, a police officer is allowed to read over your texts and peruse other personal information on your phone whenever they want. The Fourth Amendment privacy rights and protections do not apply here. Right now, police officers can apprehend you for small crimes.

Can police pull up old text messages? ›

So, can police recover deleted pictures, texts, and files from a phone? The answer is yes—by using special tools, they can find data that hasn't been overwritten yet. However, by using encryption methods, you can ensure your data is kept private, even after deletion.

How far back can police retrieve text messages? ›

The police may obtain your opened and unopened messages that are 180 days old or older with a subpoena. But they have to let you know once they've requested this access from the provider. Law enforcement are allowed to access older, unread emails without telling you if they obtain a court order.

Can police retrieve phone conversations? ›

Can police get old phone conversations? They can't usually get old conversations, as phone companies don't routinely record users calls. However, police can obtain permission via a warrant to give them the power to record a suspect's calls, if they believe it may provide evidence usable in court.

How long does it take for police to examine a phone? ›

It is worth being aware that analysis of your devices by the police can take some time. A typical case with no surrounding factors could take anywhere between 6-12 months for results to be obtained.

Are text messages enough evidence to convict? ›

Like social media posts and other forms of digital communication, text messages can be used as evidence in court and can be instrumental in the outcome of both criminal and civil cases.

Are deleted texts gone forever? ›

When you delete a piece of data from your device — a photo, video, text or document — it doesn't vanish. Instead, your device labels that space as available to be overwritten by new information.

Can a private investigator retrieve deleted text messages? ›

Even if someone deletes text messages, memos, calendar updates and call records, a private investigator may be able to recover this information. This level of detail can inform someone of who the person has had contact with, at what time and date the contact occurred and the content of the contact.

How to permanently delete text messages so they can t be recovered? ›

Here's how: Long-press the message thread you'd like to remove. It will highlight with a checkmark. Tap on the trash can icon at the bottom and confirm.

How far back can cell phone companies pull your text messages? ›

All of the providers retained records of the date and time of the text message and the parties to the message for time periods ranging from sixty days to seven years. However, the majority of cellular service providers do not save the content of text messages at all.

How do police extract data from phones? ›

Using MDFTs, law enforcement can access call logs, contacts, texts, emails, social media posts, photos, location information, search history, and more. In particular, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v.

Can texts be traced back? ›

Can Texting Apps Be Traced By Police? Yes, police can trace phone numbers from anonymous texting apps like TextFree, and TextNow, back to an individual through a court order. Through a valid court order, they are compelled to hand over user information, which helps police to trace a number back to an individual.

Can the police see everything on your phone? ›

The cops might have access to any accounts your phone was logged into, this means they may have read personal communication, noted your personal accounts including email addresses, social media account names to follow, sent messages or made posts using your log in.

How do I stop my phone from being tracked by the police? ›

Turn off location settings on Android:
  1. Open the “App Drawer.”
  2. Go to “Settings.”
  3. Select “Location.”
  4. Enter “Google Location Settings.”
  5. Turn off “Location Reporting” and “Location History.”
  6. You can also select “Delete Location History” to remove all previous tracking data.
Dec 8, 2022

Can the police track your phone without a SIM card? ›

The answer to that is a simple yes! All phones, whether an iPhone or an android, can be tracked down without a sim card or network. Still, they will need to have a secure Wi-Fi connection to be accurate.

What software do police use to recover data from phones? ›

MDFTs are designed to copy all of the data commonly found on a cellphone. Mobile device forensic tools are designed to extract the maximum amount of information possible. This includes data like your contacts, photos, videos, saved passwords, GPS records, phone usage records, and even “deleted” data.

How long does it take for forensics to search a phone? ›

Phone forensics may only take 24 hours, but this can extend to several days if there is a lot of data to process. If the investigator works on an hourly rate, ask the investigator to provide you with an estimate on how long the investigation should take to complete.

How long can police keep you under investigation? ›

There is no general time limit for how long a police investigation can stay open in England and Wales. For summary only offences, which are heard in the Magistrates' Court, the case must be heard within twelve months of the crime.

Do text conversations hold up in court? ›

Text messaging leaves an electronic record of dialogue that can be entered as evidence in court. Like other forms of written evidence, text messages must be authenticated in order to be admitted (see this article on admissibility by Steve Good).

Can you get text transcripts? ›

Federal law prevents companies from producing these documents without a court order or subpoena. Text message records must be obtained from a party's cell phone provider. An attorney can obtain a court order or subpoena to get the records directly from the service provider.

Can chat messages be used as evidence in court? ›

The Supreme Court has ruled that photos and messages from Facebook Messenger or other social media platforms obtained by private individuals are now admissible as evidence in court proceedings.

Where do permanently deleted texts go? ›

When you delete a text message on your Samsung phone, the Messages app sends it to Recycle bin for 30 days. After a month, the Recycle bin permanently deletes the message. Open the Messages app on your Samsung phone.

Are all text messages saved somewhere? ›

In fact, all text messages are saved on Android phones by default. Therefore, if you only have a SIM card, you cannot see the text messages saved on the phone. If you want to save them on the SIM card or SD card, you have to manually move them to the SIM card one by one yourself.

How long are text messages stored? ›

How long are text messages kept on a phone? They sit on the company's server for anywhere from three days to three months, depending on the company's policy. Verizon holds texts for up to five days and Virgin Mobile keeps them for 90 days.

How do private investigators get access to text messages? ›

Can A Phone Detective Obtain Text messages? Like wiretapping a phone to listen in on conversations, a private investigator can't read text messages without the individual's consent. Laws vary from place to place, but a private investigator more than likely won't be able to obtain text messages.

Who can see deleted text messages? ›

According to Google Support, you can restore texts, calls, device settings, contacts, calendars, photos and videos by opening the Google Drive app, tapping “Menu” then “Backups” and then restoring the backup version you're looking for.

Can a private investigator see Internet history? ›

Most if not all information on the internet is stored in databases. These databases are available to private investigators. They contain crucial public and non-public records that an investigator can use to locate and track someone.

How do I permanently Delete text messages from my SIM card? ›

How can I delete my text messages
  1. Open SMS on your phone and press option button (left side of home button)
  2. Select "Settings"
  3. Find "Manage SIM card messages "
  4. for delete one massage > long press on relevant SMS and select Delete"
  5. to delete all "press option button and select "delete option"
Dec 21, 2015

How do I recover a permanently deleted text file? ›

How to Restore Permanently Deleted Files Without Software
  1. Open the Start menu.
  2. Type restore files and hit Enter on your keyboard.
  3. Look for the folder where you deleted files were stored.
  4. Select the "Restore" button in the middle to undelete Windows 10 files to their original location.
Feb 22, 2023

How do I permanently Delete text messages from icloud? ›

iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch
  1. Swipe left across any message to delete it.
  2. Go to your Mailboxes and choose your Trash folder.
  3. To delete messages one at a time, swipe left on each message. To delete everything, tap Edit, tap Select All, and then tap Delete. Tap Delete All to confirm.
Dec 19, 2022

How far back can text messages be subpoenaed US Cellular? ›

Retention Period

Approximately seven years. Call Detail Records • Specific to a subscriber • Outgoing & incoming phone numbers. Date & time of calls or text messages.

How far back can text messages be subpoenaed AT&T? ›

AT&T keeps records of the phone calls and text message details (but not content) for about 7 years. subpoena will likely not suffice. The AT&T Subpoena Compliance Team can be reached at (800) 291-4952 or at (800) 635-6840. U.S. Cellular maintains text message content for 3-5 days.

Can my spouse get copies of my text messages? ›

Generally, texts and emails are private. Thus, you don't have a right to look at them without your spouse's consent. Doing so is viewed as an invasion of privacy. It doesn't matter whether you are married, separated or divorced.

How much does cell phone forensics cost? ›

How much does it cost to recover, examine, and produce evidence from a cell phone? In the majority of legal cases, the cell phone investigator can recover and analyze the cell phone's evidence and generate forensic tool reports for the legal team's review for an average cost of $3,000 to $5,000.

What texting app Cannot be traced? ›

You can use Threema anonymously and protect private conversations with a PIN, which makes it one of the top non-traceable text message apps.

Can police trace anonymous texts? ›

Can anonymous texts be traced? Under most circumstances, no. Since your true phone number is not included when the message is sent, anonymous texts cannot be traced. However, law enforcement can trace anonymous texts if they are used for criminal or malicious purposes, including harassment or scams.

What information do police officers have access to? ›

Police National Computer

This is a large database where police store everything from pictures taken when you were arrested to intelligence and tips about ongoing information. If you've ever been arrested, your details will be on the PNC, along with your photo and potentially your fingerprints and DNA.

How far back can police track text messages? ›

The police may obtain your opened and unopened messages that are 180 days old or older with a subpoena. But they have to let you know once they've requested this access from the provider. Law enforcement are allowed to access older, unread emails without telling you if they obtain a court order.

Can a phone be tracked without access to it? ›

Answer: Yes, it is entirely possible to see someone's text messages without their phone with a spy app that comes with an SMS tracking feature. The app will relay SMSs being received on the target phone to your device so you can monitor and read them in real-time. Such apps can also track call-logs as well.

Does *# 21 tell you if your phone is tapped? ›

Our ruling: False. We rate the claim that dialing *#21# on an iPhone or Android device reveals if a phone has been tapped FALSE because it is not supported by our research.

How long can police track your phone? ›

Police can see which device IDs were found near the location of the crime. Detectives or other officers can also search the location for IDs going forward from the time of the crime and back at least 180 days, according to the company's user license agreement.

Can police spy on your text messages? ›

Thanks to the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act (TIA Act), law enforcement and other agencies can access stored communications with a warrant. This can include "email, SMS or voice messages stored on a carrier's network".

How do you know if your phone is tapped by the police? ›

How to Know if the Police have Tapped Your Phone. If you want to know whether someone is tapping your phone line, listen for unusual sounds during your conversations. If you hear odd background noise such as high-pitched humming, static, or something similar, the police may be listening to your conversations.

How do you tell if cops are watching you? ›

Confirming Physical Surveillance
  • a person being somewhere he has no purpose being or for doing something he has no reason to be doing (blatant poor demeanor) or something more subtle.
  • moving when the target moves.
  • communicating when the target moves.
  • avoiding eye contact with the target.
  • making sudden turns or stops.
Sep 1, 2022

Can police check Imessage? ›

In general, law enforcement does not have access to end-to-end encrypted (E22E) messages sent via these services. However, they do have a workaround: messages that are backed up to cloud storage services may have an encryption key attached and may be fair game for agents with a warrant.

What can police check on your phone? ›

The cops might have access to any accounts your phone was logged into, this means they may have read personal communication, noted your personal accounts including email addresses, social media account names to follow, sent messages or made posts using your log in.

What information can the police obtain about you? ›

Police National Computer

This is a large database where police store everything from pictures taken when you were arrested to intelligence and tips about ongoing information. If you've ever been arrested, your details will be on the PNC, along with your photo and potentially your fingerprints and DNA.

Can police tap your phone without having your phone? ›

Police Must Obtain an Order to Tap Your Phone

Before they tap your phone, the police must obtain an order from a judge.

Can police look at what you search? ›

This means any information stored in your last 12 months of browsing history – known as internet connection records (ICR) – can be checked by officers, along with data stored on your computers and smartphones.

What are undercover cops not allowed to do? ›

There should be no undercover investigation of any one person by any one agency for more than 24 hours without a court-approved warrant. Further, while undercover operations may involve business as well as cordial social relationships, they should not include intimate personal relationships.

How can you tell if someone is an informant? ›

Here are ten warning signs:
  1. Something feels “off.” Something about them just doesn't line up. ...
  2. Despite the misgivings of some members, the individual quickly rises to a leadership position. ...
  3. S/he photographs actions, meetings, and people that should not be photographed. ...
  4. S/he is a liar.
Jul 6, 2013

Can police look through your iPhone? ›

Thanks to the Fourth Amendment, the police cannot search your phone without a warrant. The police are allowed to ask you to unlock your phone and hand it over, but you have the right to decline this request. However, a police officer can take your phone as evidence, even without a warrant.

Can police Access deleted iPhone messages? ›

Police are law enforcement agencies that have the right to ask for any data for security purposes. Many people hide their information in terms of photos or text messages from the police. However, police can effortlessly recover deleted Photos/Text/WhatsApp messages and almost everything from iPhone/Android.

Can police pull data from iPhone? ›


For all devices running iOS 8.0 and later versions, Apple is unable to perform an iOS device data extraction as the data typically sought by law enforcement is encrypted, and Apple does not possess the encryption key. All iPhone 6 and later device models are manufactured running iOS 8.0 or a later version of iOS.


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