It can be important to document or print text messages in custody cases or other family law disputes to show that they were sent, received, or read at a particular time. Evidence from texts can be critical in custody battles, and is often sought during discovery.
Standards of acceptability for text messages vary around the world, and even within U.S. states. For example, in Massachusetts, displaying a name on text messages isn’t enough to prove their validity without “confirming circumstances” that would “allow a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that this evidence is what its proponent claims it to be […and that…] neither expert testimony nor exclusive access is necessary to authenticate the source”. As such, it’s important to get it right.
Here’s What’s Important When Printing Text Messages in Custody Cases
Common-sense presentation of messages as evidence suggests that you need to make sure you have the following:
- A clear record of time and dates in an unambiguous format, with information on which timezone the messages were in, and whether daylight saving time affects some or all of the timestamps
- The date and time was received and read, if available (although many messaging systems don’t preserve this data, see below)
- Accurate representations of attachments and special characters, such as emoji, drawings, locations and emoji
- Clear details of the message’s sender and or recipient(s), not just an alias
- Presented in a tamper-proof way that is hard to alter or fake
This article and the techniques in it apply to anyone involved in a dispute or the arbitration of a dispute, such as a divorce, custody battle, or other family law matter.
We’re not lawyers — and can’t give legal advice. Depending on which part of the world you’re in, the forum you plan to use the print-outs in, and potentially even the judge or arbitrator, the standards of admissibility may differ. Take advice where it’s appropriate.
Options for Preserving a Phone’s Message History
Let’s take a look at the best ways to preserve text messages for use as proof.
Using Screenshots From a Phone
The simplest approach is to take a screenshot or photograph of your device displaying the texts. This is pretty simple: on an iPhone you’d hold down the home button and tap the power button, or on an iPhone without a home button you’d hold “volume up” and tap the power button. That screenshot can then be printed or emailed.
Screenshots aren’t suitable as robust forms of evidence. They have many problems:
- They can be easily faked. A screenshot is just a picture: anyone can draw a picture and put some text on it.
- It may take many screenshots to adequately show a complete messaging history, and there’s no clarity as to whether there are gaps between those screenshots.
- Messaging apps don’t show explicit timezone or daylight saving (DST) information.
- Messaging apps tend to obscure dates. Your phone might say a message was sent “yesterday”. That’s not helpful if you print it out and show it to someone a week later!
- Messaging apps tend to group messages together. If you send several iMessages close together, your iPhone will only show you when the first one was sent.
Using a Phone or Messaging App to Print Messages Directly
As well as being ineffective, it’s surprisingly difficult to print messages directly from most phones. For instance, an iPhone can’t do it. If you pair your iPhone with your Mac through your iCloud account and let them sync messages, you’ll be able to see your SMS and iMessage history in the Mac’s Messages app. You can read how to use Messages here, directly from Apple.
Saving data from the Messages app is less effective than using a screenshot from an iPhone or iPad: it has all of the same drawbacks that screenshots have — and more.
Different message types aren’t indicated. For instance, your phone will show the difference between SMS, MMS and iMessage by using different colours, but the Messages app will show them all as being grey, and won’t always include every SMS message in a text conversation.
Printing data from Messages introduces another problem: the date is shown as “29/12/2018”. If that date was shown as “5/12/2018”, it wouldn’t be possible to tell whether it was in European format (5th December) or US (12th May). Most American users would assume the message was seven months older than it appeared to be. An unambiguous format to use would be “2018-12-29”.
Print Text Messages From a Phone Network Provider
Some mobile networks provide online tools for viewing message histories from the network’s side, but these are incomplete, at best. Verizon has a “View Texts Messages” service for US subscribers, but it only includes a small amount of data, and doesn’t have attachments, rich media, deletion status, read time, and it has all the same pitfalls with missing and ambiguous dates.
Verizon’s “View Text Messages” Service
The problem with these systems is that they just don’t have the data to provide. They deliver SMS messages, and as such have basic data about them, but they know nothing about iMessages, RCS messages (which modern Android devices use), and they don’t know any device-related data, such as read times or support for attachments or embedded data. These network services often struggle with Unicode characters where non-English languages are used.
That’s not to say that this data is useless: it’s another proof point to demonstrate that a complete, printed record from another source is accurate, and this could be an important aspect in convincing a Judge or other arbitrator as to the accuracy of other information you submit in a dispute.
Using iPhone Backup Extractor to Get an Accurate, Forensic Report of Text Messages
Apple’s iTunes software is free to all users, and it can be used to quickly create a forensically sound archive of an iPhone’s contents. iPhone Backup Extractor can then — with a single click — generate a fully accurate report of message histories from an iPhone or iPod. Not only that, but it supports a wide range of additional messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, can recover deleted messages better than specialist forensics tools, and has a free version available to generate reports from threads with four or fewer messages.
Saving your text message history in a portable, printable format is easy with iPhone Backup Extractor. Download and run it. Open the “Preferences” dialog and make sure “Forensics mode” is checked. It’ll show you a summary of the number of messages you have in each of your messaging apps. If you then click the messaging app’s icon, iPhone Backup Extractor will generate a PDF of your message histories — with deleted messages include — in a clear, incontrovertible format.
What About Messages in iCloud, Is That Helpful?
No, it’s not. It’s actually unhelpful from a forensics perspective. First of all, Messages in iCloud will remove older messages from your device, meaning you’ll need to look at several different services to analyse your message history. It also means that your historic messages aren’t preserved: they’re getting archived and moved away to a different service over time.
Ideally, you want to be able to recover all of your messages from the device itself, and not a cloud service, without having to download the messages back to your phone.
Messages in iCloud adds a further complication, in that it may lead to larger message attachments being archived from your device and stored in the cloud.
Learning More About Text Messages in Custody Cases and Family Law
For legal advice regarding your divorce case or custody case, you need to speak to a family lawyer. There are a few resources around online that can be quite helpful for picking up a bit of background and helping you ask the right questions, however.
If you’re in a family law dispute, both parties should be aware that wiping a phone or deleting texts ahead of a legal hearing could lead to a felony charge in the US. It is also important to point out that attempting to ‘hack’ or gain access to a phone, even if it belongs to a spouse or ex-partner, may fall foul of Federal wiretapping laws.
A version of this article originally appeared here.
Aidan founded Reincubate in 2008 after building the world’s first iPhone data recovery tool, iPhone Backup Extractor. His work has been cited in over 20 academic papers on forensics and mobile data, including “Overcoming Forensic Implications with Enhancing Security in iOS” (Gangula, MR, 2019), and “Direct Message Extraction for Automatic Emotional Inference and Drug Detection” (Fong, G, 2019). www.reincubate.com