Internet service providers (ISPs) are the companies that connect us to the Internet. ISPs are able to collect a significant amount of information on their customers, including their IP addresses and browsing history. Some ISPs maintain data on their customers for an extended period of time and others do not. For example, Comcast said in 2006 that is retains customer records for six months.
While there is no standard for retaining customer records among Internet service providers, federal law enforcement officials would like there to be one. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice requested that Congress pass a law that would require ISPs to retain information on their customers in order to enhance the ability to investigate Internet crimes. When questioned by members of Congress, the DOJ did not offer any specific details for its plan, but the Justice Department's Jason Weinstein has suggested that two years worth of data retention "would be a useful starting point."
Presently, there is already a law on the books requiring ISPs to retain information. The Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act of 1996 requires ISPs to retain any record in their possession for 90 days upon the request of a governmental entity.
Forcing ISPs to store data on the American people raises very serious constitutional and privacy concerns. However, federal prosecutions for crimes involving child pornography, money laundering and computer piracy are often made easier for prosecutors when they have access to information from Internet service providers. Having increased access to a person's Internet browsing history might make a prosecutor's job easier, but at what cost?
The vast majority of Americans who use the Internet do so for lawful purposes and do not commit Internet crimes. Yet this law would require ISPs to store everyone's information, regardless of whether they are accused of a crime or not. The potential for misuse and abuse of personal information is staggering. The individual right to privacy and the right to freely speak over the Internet would be greatly imperiled by a law that mandates storing two years worth of a person's Internet information.
Whether the DOJ's request for greater tracking of Internet use becomes law will be a matter for the politicians to decide. However, this story illustrates that law enforcement officials are seeking any advantage they can get over defendants. However, many of the advantages they seek are of dubious legality and constitutionality. If you have been accused of an Internet crime, the evidence used against you might seem overwhelming, but all evidence must pass constitutional scrutiny in order to be admissible in a court of law.
The Huffington Post, "Justice Department Calls For Required Data Retention," Amy Lee, 1/26/2011
CNET News, "DOJ pressed for details on Internet tracking plan," Declan McCullagh, 1/25/2011