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September 20, 2006

AG Calls for New Data Retention Laws

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is asking Congress to pass a law that will require Internet providers to retain customer records of their Internet usage for two years to better help the government investigate cases of child pornography and terrorism.  News reports indicate that Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller met with he major Internet providers to press them on the subject.  Other reports have indicated that some providers have increased their data preservation times to help head off legislation.  That won't stop the Attorney General, however, as he appeared before the Senate Banking Committee over the need for such a law.

Internet providers and some businesses have had unease over these proposals based on their promises of customer privacy and a general feeling that privacy is one of the civil liberties that people take seriously.  Preserving data may affect the way people use the Internet in terms of shopping and other transactions if users feared the information was turned over to the government.

Most of the talk from the government says the information that should be preserved would be matching IP addresses to web site visits, email, and messaging.  The content would not need to be preserved as much as the paths these communications take and their final destination.  The government would obtain the data via subpoena.  This, of course, is the same government that decided on its own that the subpoena process was too slow and cumbersome in terrorism cases so it simply ignored the requirement in the FISA law.  One could legitimately ask that with  that kind of a track record, why would this government respect the subpoena requirement in this situation? 

The major phone companies provident Internet access have not been models of civil libertarians by some measures.  AT&T, Verizon, and others are being sued by providing customer records to the government without a subpoena.  In fact, AT&T recently changed its customer agreement to make the data property of the company to avoid such suits in the future.  In the meantime, the government has tried to get the suit against AT&T dismissed on the grounds that it would reveal state secrets.  That alone is somewhat of an admission that something funny is going on.  Bob Dylan said it best when he sang "Because something is happening here, but you don't know what it is
do you, Mister Jones?"
Another problem lurking in the background of all this is the other possible uses of the mountains of data that will sit out there.  Divorces, cheating spouses, viewing and or purchases of legal but tasteless products (use your imagination), could be subject to subpoena in private litigation.  And then there is the matter of out of state purchases on the Internet.  How many people actually report those purchases to pay sales tax on their state returns?  Now state governments could have a way to put teeth in compliance with that line of the tax return.  Sure, the current proposals don't require preserving that kind of information for purposes of the war on terrorism.  It would be easier for the government to extend laws passed than to go for the whole thing at once.  If Congress goes along with this, it should put strict limits on the government's ability to bypass the courts in validating requests for data.  Given the current composition of Congress, however, I wouldn't hold my breath on that one.

Stories are in the Houston Chronicle, Ars Technica, ABC News, and Playfuls.

September 20, 2006 | Permalink


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