February 7

Maine judge: Cellphone company erred in turning over text messages

A supreme court justice finds that U.S. Cellular violated privacy laws by releasing the data.

The Associated Press

PORTLAND – A cellphone company turned over more than 50,000 text messages in a divorce case in which a protection order was in place, violating federal privacy law, a state supreme court justice concluded.

Justice Donald Alexander criticized U.S. Cellular’s actions, saying the company violated the federal Stored Communications Act. The lawyer for the husband, who used subpoenas to get the texts from the wife and another man, was suspended for six months for bar violations including failure to notify other parties of the subpoenas.

The judge wrote that the Stored Communications Act makes no exceptions to cellphone companies for releasing data in response to civil subpoenas. He said the texts that were released included privileged information from the wife to her lawyers and doctors.

“That U.S. Cellular would voluntarily provide ... copies of text messages containing sensitive and privileged material appears extraordinary in light of the ongoing debate about the propriety of government agencies, supported by court orders, reviewing cell phone call logs that do not include the actual text of messages such as were freely provided in response to subpoenas here,” he wrote.

Chicago-based U.S. Cellular Corp. was looking into the matter, spokeswoman Kelly Harfoot said. The sanctioned attorney, Charles Ferris, didn’t immediately return a message left at his Waterville office.

The judge’s order was signed Jan. 31. In the order, the judge took the unusual step of ordering the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar to alert state and federal prosecutors about U.S. Cellular’s practices.

The judge said federal law provides little recourse against U.S. Cellular but state and federal authorities should be aware of what happened to a customer who was protected by a protection order.

“Consideration may need to be given to means for protection of the privacy and security of such persons,” he wrote.

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