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Friday, June 02, 2006

Data minding

As I first blogged about over a month ago, Attorney General Alberto "Gonzo" Gonzales is seeking to mandate that internet service providers (ISPs) keep their records of your surfing habits for a far longer period of time than they currently do. Here's what's changed. A month ago, the reason the AG gave for wanting this was to better track child pornographers and potential child stalkers. Well, apparently even invoking the usually foolproof "It's for the children" mantra hasn't been working, because according to Declan McCullogh at Cnet, Gonzo now says this data retention is necessary for the War on Terror:

Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller privately met with representatives of AOL, Comcast, Google, Microsoft and Verizon last week and said that Internet providers--and perhaps search engines--must retain data for two years to aid in anti-terrorism prosecutions, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussion who spoke on condition of anonymity on Tuesday.

"We want this for terrorism," Gonzales said, according to one person familiar with the discussion.
Even if you think this is a good idea (I don't), you can't possibly believe that the government would only ask to see these records for terror-related matters. You know damn well that from there it goes straight to the War on Drugs, and from there to wherever an overzealous prosecutor or federal agent wants.
"A monumental data trove is a crazy thing from a privacy perspective," said one person familiar with Friday's discussions. "It's crazy that the U.S. government is going to retain more data than the Chinese government does."
Think about that: the democratically elected US government might have more access to your private habits than the dictatorship in China. Makes you proud, don't it?
Two proposals to mandate data retention have surfaced in the U.S. Congress. One, backed by Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, says that any Internet service that "enables users to access content" must permanently retain records that would permit police to identify each user. The records could be discarded only at least one year after the user's account was closed. [I blogged about this proposal here.]

The other was drafted by aides to Wisconsin Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a close ally of President Bush. Sensenbrenner said through a spokesman earlier this month, though, that his proposal is on hold because "our committee's agenda is tremendously overcrowded already."

According to the New York Times:

While initial proposals were vague, executives from companies that attended the meeting said they gathered that the [Justice] department was interested in records that would allow them to identify which individuals visited certain Web sites and possibly conducted searches using certain terms.

It also wants the Internet companies to retain records about whom their users exchange e-mail with, but not the contents of e-mail messages, the executives said.

The department proposed that the records be retained for as long as two years. Most Internet companies discard such records after a few weeks or months.In its current proposal, the department appears to be trying to determine whether Internet companies will voluntarily agree to keep certain information or if it will need to seek legislation to require them to do so.
The notion of privacy as we used to know it is dying a slow death, gasping for air, and breathing its last. And very few people seem to care.

At the meeting with privacy groups, officials sought to assuage concerns that the retention of the records could compromise the privacy of Americans. But [executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, Marc] Rotenberg said he left with lingering concerns.

"This is a sharp departure from current practice," he said. "Data retention is an open-ended obligation to retain all information on all customers for all purposes, and from a traditional Fourth Amendment perspective, that really turns things upside down."

Executives of several Internet companies that participated in the first meeting said the department's initial proposals seemed expensive and unwieldy.

And guess what? Should Congress pass some form of draconian data-retention law, those extra costs will be borne by the consumer. The hits just keep on coming.

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