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U.S. asks Internet firms to save data


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Top law enforcement officials have asked leading Internet companies to keep histories of the activities of Web users for up to two years to assist in criminal investigations of child pornography and terrorism, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller outlined their request to executives from Google, Microsoft, AOL, Comcast, Verizon and others Friday in a private meeting at the Justice Department. The department has scheduled more discussions as early as Friday. Last week's meeting was first reported by CNET, an online news service.

The meetings reflect a new approach by law enforcement in anti-terrorism efforts. Previously, the Justice Department had invoked the need for data retention only to battle child pornography. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Internet traffic has become increasingly critical to terrorism investigations, too.

What do you think of the government's plans?

Justice is not asking the companies to keep the content of e-mails, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. It wants records such as lists of e-mail traffic and Web searches, he said.

Roehrkasse said the government is required to seek proper legal authority, such as a subpoena, before obtaining the records. He said any change in the retention period would not alter that requirement. Law enforcement officials have seen investigations derailed "time and time again" because of a lack of data, Roehrkasse said.

The government's request forces the companies to strike a balance between satisfying law enforcement demands and honoring the privacy of millions of customers.

"The issue for us is not whether we retain data, but we want to see it done right," says Dave McClure, president of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, which represents 150 companies, primarily Internet service providers. "Our concerns are who pays for it, what data is retained, and if it is retained legally without violating federal laws and subscriber agreements."

Lee Tien, a lawyer for the privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he was concerned.

"I think that the request raises some really, really major privacy problems," he said. The Justice Department is "asking ISPs (Internet service providers) to really become an arm of the government."

The request creates a logistical challenge: Most Internet providers store data such as Web searches for 30 to 90 days. Storing such information significantly longer is more expensive, McClure and others say.

"We strongly support Gonzales' interest in assuring that the Internet is safe for everyone," Phil Reitinger, Microsoft's senior security strategist, said in a statement Wednesday that acknowledged the company's participation in the meeting at Justice. "But data retention is a complicated issue."

"We believe (data retention and preservation) proposals deserve careful review and must consider the legitimate interests of individual users, law enforcement agencies, and Internet companies," Google spokesman Steve Langdon said Wednesday.

Gonzales broached the issue of record retention in April during a speech at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.

Gonzales, who has made fighting child exploitation a prominent part of the national law enforcement agenda, said the pursuit of child predators depends on the availability of evidence often in the hands of ISPs.

This isn't the first time Gonzales has gone to Internet companies with a request related to their records. In March, a federal judge ordered Google to hand over Web search records requested by Justice as part of its efforts to shield children from sexually explicit material online. Google balked at an earlier request, saying it would expose trade secrets. AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft cooperated with the government, but they said their assistance was limited and users' privacy was not violated.

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The ISP's were also told that if they did not comply there will be a law supporting it shortly and they would have no say in the matter. I will post up a source once I find it.

Anyone not have a problem with this?