It's Evident


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The 4nscs of Txt Msgs1
Catherine G. Bailey, Research Attorney

Text messaging: it may have its critics but there is no denying its popularity. The appeal of this form of digital communication is primarily the speed at which information can be transmitted – after all who doesn't like a little instant gratification?2 However there is now another, newly discovered benefit; busting alibis and catching criminals.

That's a Lot of Texting
With just a few clicks of the keypad mobile texters can enter contests for cash and prizes3, stay current on celebrity gossip4, cast votes for their favorite reality TV star5, order pizza6, get a weather report7, look up show times for movies8, donate to charity9, support a political candidate10 , and purchase almost anything from clothes to cars11. Notwithstanding this plethora of applications, personal communication appears to remain the most popular use of texting.

In mid-2002 Americans were sending just about 12.2 million SMS text messages a month. In June 2005 that number was 7.2 billion, and by June 2008 the figure had skyrocketed to 75 billion. This latest figure suggests that subscribers are sending almost 2.5 billion texts per day.12 Considering that teenagers and tweens are driving this trend, these numbers will probably only continue to rise.

Say What?
Text messages are limited to 160 characters. This "limitation and the somewhat cumbersome task of inputting text have led to the creation—by users—of an abbreviated language of their own."13 These truncated words and phrases are known collectively as text speak and include terms such as: OMDB for Over My Dead Body, LNGWIJ for Language, and FTR for For The Record. More examples can easily be found in texting dictionaries and "decoders" available online14 and in hard copy format.15

Critics of this trend claim that the prevalence of text speak is corroding the English language, particularly in terms of student writing. However not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. Author and linguist David Crystal published a book in 2008 on the issue titled "Txtng: The Gr8 Db8." In it he explains that texting actually helps, not hinders, youth literacy.16

While this claim is still under debate, one thing is clear. For better or for worse text messaging has generated a new language – a language that has forensic significance.

The Study of Slang
Linguistics experts in the UK have started studying text messages in an effort to identify authorship for forensic purposes. These professionals are essentially applying existing, traditional linguistic analysis to a new medium – text speak. As explained by a leader in the field:

          The key to determining authorship of messages or written documents is to identify patterns in style – spelling, punctuation and use of language, as well as the           spacing between words – and the frequency of functional words such as "of"-, "if" and "the". "What you need to demonstrate authorship is consistency in style           and distinctiveness in style."17

There are two characteristics that make texting lingo especially susceptible to forensic interpretation. First there are often many prior texts available for comparison. Secondly, "[t]he interesting thing about text messages is that they're very short, but because it's a new way of working, people partially make it up themselves. This makes text messages much more distinctive than other types of writing."18

A significant benefit of figuring out who wrote a particular text is that investigators can then also determine who did not write the message. This technique has already proved useful in at least two murder prosecutions in the UK.19

For Example…
In 2001 fifteen year old Danielle Jones disappeared while walking to a bus stop. Her body was never recovered and investigators determined she was the victim of foul play. Danielle's uncle, Stuart Campbell, was subsequently arrested and convicted in connection with the crime.20 When police started to suspect Stuart he showed them text messages that he allegedly received from Danielle after she went missing. During trial a linguistic professor explained that Stuart had sent the messages to himself in a botched attempt to establish an alibi. This was evident because the texts included phrases that were not typical of how Danielle usually expressed herself. For example, the young girl used the phrase "WAT" to express the term "what", however in the suspect messages the term was spelled "WOT." The author also wrote out the phrase "at the moment" which the Danielle would have written as "AT THE MO."21

More recently David Hodgson, another British citizen, was accused and convicted of murdering his teenage girlfriend, Jenny Nicholl. Nine days after Jenny had disappeared, texts were sent from her cell phone to her schoolmates and family. During trial police explained that they never believed the messages were actually sent by the young woman.22 Instead it was more likely that Joe generated the messages to create an alibi and throw off the investigators. An expert linguist provided testimony about discrepancies between Jenny's writing style and that of the suspect texts. In addition to many differences in how letters were spaced, Jenny was known to use the abbreviations "FONE" and "CU" while the texts sent after she disappeared used "phone" and "cya."23

If these cases are any indication, we are likely to see an increase in linguistic analysis of text messages. In fact researchers are developing a database of texts at the UK's Centre for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University.24 As part of this project, over 7,000 text messages have been compiled to provide insight into message styles and variations between individuals and groups of individuals. This work helps establish "base rate information for certain features in texting language" 25 and is ongoing.

Giving the 5-0 the 411
Police have an additional method for using texts to catch criminals - the text tipster line. Areas such as Los Angeles26, New York27 and Chicago28 have implemented new cell phone text options that allow the public to send messages to police about possible criminal activity. Boston adopted this system in 2007 and the very first tip resulted in an arrest for a New Hampshire murder. From June 15, 2007 through June 15, 2008 "Boston police logged 678 text tips, nearly matching the 727 phone tips during the same period."29 By mid-2008 over 100 communities had created text tip lines.30

To assure senders' anonymity law enforcement agencies employ third-party application providers to receive the texts. These providers mask the data of any identifying data and forward the tip on to investigators.31 Specifically, the programs are usually internet-based and messages are run through non-police servers that encrypt cell phone numbers. The submission and encryption process takes mere seconds to complete and officers have no way of tracking the tips. Senders are encouraged to delete the texts from their mobile devices for their own safety and security.32

Some systems do allow for two-way communication between texters and police personnel, but the conversations are still routed through third-party encryption and remain completely anonymous. In this situation tipsters first send in their tips. Then they receive a message explaining that police received the information. They also are given an identifying alias, such as T657. Police can then use this alias to reply to tipsters with follow-up questions.33

Police are careful to point out that texting law enforcement with a tip is not the same as phoning 911. Therefore persons in emergency situations should still contact 911 for immediate assistance. 911 call centers are upgrading their systems to accept text messages, as exampled by "Vermont's emergency response community [which] switched to a new Internet protocol (IP)-based 911 telecommunications system" in 2007.34

Up

1 The Forensics of Text Messages
2 Louis Menand, THUMBSPEAK: Is Texting Here to Stay?, New Yorker (10/20/08) at www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/10/20/081020crbo_books_menand
3 Diana Dilworth, Mobile Text Contest Works for Atlanta-Area Radio Station, DM News (5/12/08) at www.dmnews.com/Mobile-text-contest-works-for-Atlanta-area-radio-station/article/110411
4 For example: www.usatoday.com/brand_marketing/sms/celeb/celebinfo.html
5 Britain's Reality TV Craze Fuels Text Message Voting, Cellular-News (3/7/06) at http://www.cellular-news.com/story/16397.php
6 For example: www.papajohns.com/sms/index.shtm
7 For example: www.weather.com/mobile/textmessaging.html
8 For example: http://www.411sms.com/movies
9 Katrin Verclas, Is Mobile Fundraising the Next Frontier for Charities?, MobileActive.org (11/29/07) at mobileactive.org/mobile-fundraising-next-frontier
10 For example: www.barackobama.com/mobile
11 Shopping by Text, USAweekend.com (9/23/07) at www.usaweekend.com/07_issues/070923/070923fashion-shopping-by-text-message.html
12 CTIA – The Wireless Association® Releases Latest Wireless Industry Survey Results, CTIA Press Release (9/10/08) at ctia.org/media/press/body.cfm/prid/1772
13 The Future of Text Messaging, SmartPhoneMag.com (Aug / Sep 07) at www.smartphonemag.com/cms/_archives/Aug07/textmessaging.aspx
14 For example: www.webopedia.com/quick_ref/textmessageabbreviations.asp
15 Evie Shoeman & Jack Shoeman, Text Messaging Survival Guide (Trafford Publishing 2007)
16 David Crystal, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (Oxford University Press 2008)
17 Richard Sadler, Criminals Beware … Texting May Lead the Police to Your Door, Scotsman.com (9/8/08) at news.scotsman.com/latestnews/Pioneering-branch-of-forensics-takes.4467224.jp
18 Owen Amos, The Text Trap, Northern Echo, page 18 (2/27/08) at www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/2076811.the_text_trap; See also: Crystal Deane, Experts Help Trap the Crooks by Text, Birmingham Mail, page 67 (5/30/08)
19 For an additional example of a convicted seller sending text messages to cover their tracks, see: Mobile Phone Records Show How Lover Sent Bogus Text Messages, Western Morning News, Page 6 (7/6/2006)
20 Martin Wallace & Ian Hepburn, A Monster in the Family; Murdered by Her Uncle, The Sun, (12/20/2002); See also: Tania Branigan, Uncle Told Missing Girl's Mother 'She Will Turn Up', guardian.co.uk (10/11/02) at http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/oct/11/childprotection.society, and Danielle's Uncle Jailed for Murder, BBC News (12/22/02) at news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/2581739.stm
21 'Errors' In Danielle Text Messages, BBC News, (11/12/02) at web.bham.ac.uk/forensic/news/02/danielle1.html
22 Amos, supra note 18; See also: Laura Davis, Txt Study Helps to Convict Criminals, Daily Post, page 8 (9/8/08), and Owen Amos, Murder, But Not as We Know It, Northern Echo, Page 8 (2/20/08)t news.scotsman.com/latestnews/Pioneering-branch-of-forensics-takes.4467224.jp
23 Amos, supra note 18
24 Txt Crimes, Sex Crimes and Murder: The Science of Forensic Linguistics, Science Daily (9/8/08) at www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080908073841.htm; See also: Dick Ahlstrom, Linguistic Analysis Used to Identify Unsigned Texts, Irish Times, Page 6 (9/8/08)
25 The Centre for Forensic Linguistics, www1.aston.ac.uk/lss/academicgroups/english/texting-study
26 Los Angeles Police Department Anonymous Crime Tip Program Public Fact Sheet, www.lapdonline.org/get_involved/pdf_view/39390
27 Anonymous Tips Can Now Be Posted on NYPD Web Site,, Staten Island Advance, page A03 (10/20/08); See also: cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/06/police-urge-crimefighters-to-text-their-tips
28 Carols Sadovi, Chicago Schools, Police Officials Unveil Plans to Curb Student Violence, Chicago Tribune (9/8/08)
29 AP, Police Invite Tips from Anonymous Text Messages, Washington Times (7/3/08) at www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/jul/03/police-invite-tips-from-anonymous-text-messages
30 Id.
31 Will Park, LAPD Launches Anonymous SMS Text Messaging Tipline, IntoMobile.com (9/18/08) at www.intomobile.com/2008/09/18/lapd-launches-anonymous-sms-text-messaging-tipline.html
32 Elaine Rundle, Police Encourage Citizens to Text Their Crime Tips, Government Technology (11/10/08) at www.govtech.com/gt/articles/424044
33 Id.
34 David Raths, 911 Systems Upgrade to Accept Text Messages and Video, Government Technology (8/4/08) at www.govtech.com/gt/365413