The U.S. government is stepping up pressure on Internet service providers (ISPs) to retain records of customer on-line activity should they be needed for anti-terrorism prosecution, CNET News reported in last week.
The article reported that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller privately met with executives at AOL, Comcast, Google, Microsoft and Verizon, telling them they should retain data on customer billing, email addresses, instant messaging and Internet telephone calling, for at least two years. Most ISPs either don't keep this information or routinely discard it unless it is germane to a billing dispute.
The article goes on to delineate the difference between data retention and data preservation. Generally, police and prosecutors may order a phone company or ISP to preserve documents that pertain to a specific case. Retention, which enjoins service providers from disposing of any records for an established length of time, gives the government an opportunity to conduct large-scale data searches, or, to use a more loaded term, fishing expeditions.
The reports are bound to heighten controversy about the federal government's reliance on the telecommunications industry's collection of private transactions as an enforcement tool. Until now, the Justice Department had only asked for ISP cooperation in cases of child pornography and on-line predation–crimes specific to the on-line world.
If data retention becomes viewed primarily as an anti-terrorism measure recent legal and political spats could complicate the Justice Department's efforts to make it a standard practice.
Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth recently came under fire for allegedly turning over customer data to the National Security Agency, although there have been denials on both sides since USA Today broke the story in May. Earlier in the year, Google reached a compromise with the Justice Department over a request for data on Web searches conducted by Google users.