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June 2, 2006

AG Asks ISPs to Preserve User Tracking Data for Two Years

CNET reported earlier and now USA Today is reporting on the Justice Department asking Internet providers to keep tabs on all of their user online activity for up to two years to assist in anti-terrorism efforts.  The request does not focus on content as much as paths people have taken and who and when they contact through Internet communication.  Information such as which IP addresses were assigned to which user, email addresses of sent and received mail, instant messaging session contacts and Internet telephone call logs are all potentially part of the plan. The Attorney General made similar statements about ISP retention practices for child pornography purposes earlier this year.  The Justice Department has said that it would still take a subpoena to get access to the data.

What the USA Today story leaves out but CNET leaves in is the legislation that's percolating in congress on the issue.  One authored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) requires permanent retention of all records which can only be discarded a year after an account was closed.  The second is authored by House Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner but is on hold because of the Committee's crowded agenda.  If that bill isn't on the front burner, then Rep. DeGette's bill is probably not going to get much further.

Providers are uneasy about the proposal because of the amount of investment and effort it would take to actually track and record all online habits for such a long period of time.   As of now ISPs only keep about 30 days worth of information on each user and mostly information necessary to resolve billing disputes.  ISPs generally cooperate with law enforcement on a case by case basis and preserve specific information for a longer period.

CNET points out that the U.s. government switched positions on this after the European Parliament passed legislation essentially mandating a similar data retention scheme in Europe.  The Attorney General had said before that the government had serious reservations about data retention laws.  Missing from any news reports so far are details of any safeguards in place to protect the privacy of Americans.  Not that the Internet is the most private of places.  On one hand marketers build exceedingly detailed profiles on our online habits.  The better to target products and services to us.  On the other hand we do private things such as bank, pay bills and make other financial transactions.  We make phone calls, we buy things, we sell things, we look for companionship and can communicate on an intimate level.  Does the government really need to know all of this to fight terrorism?  If this is the future, we need some rules in place before this gets out of hand.

June 2, 2006 | Permalink


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