[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: This is the second of three reports
on this very sensitive topic in this issue. PAT]
Firms wary about holding customer records
By MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer
Top U.S. law enforcement officials have told Internet companies they
must retain customer records longer to help in child pornography and
terrorism investigations, and they are considering asking Congress to
require preservation of records.
Industry representatives are expected to meet Friday with Justice
Department officials, a week after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
and FBI Director Robert Mueller first raised the issue with executives
from several Internet service providers, including AOL, Comcast Corp.,
Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc.
The subject has prompted alarm from some executives and privacy
advocates, especially after Gonzales' Justice Department took Google
to court earlier this year to force it to turn over information on
customer searches. Civil liberties groups also have sued Verizon and
other telephone companies, alleging they are working with the
government to provide information without search warrants on
subscriber calling records.
Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand, who attended the first
meeting, said Thursday that some executives raised privacy concerns at
the meeting. But she said Gonzales has not made any decisions about
how to proceed and that the department would be mindful of the privacy
"We are looking at whether requiring longer data retention or asking
ISPs to do it informally is something we want to pursue," Brand said.
Mueller suggested a period of two years and said terrorism
investigations also would be helped by such a rule, several people who
attended the meeting said. Gonzales was focused on child pornography
cases, they said.
Any proposal would not call for the content of communications to be
preserved, would keep the information in the companies' hands and
could be obtained by the government through a subpoena or other lawful
process, Brand said.
Still, one Internet executive familiar with the meeting said one worry
is that once retained, the records could be made available for any
criminal investigation or civil case, "down to a bad divorce, up to a
music company asking for people who visited a file trading site."
The executive, who requested anonymity because it was private meeting
and the talks were still continuing, said the industry was likely to
oppose any legislation for financial, privacy and technical
reasons. The department's recent clash with Google probably will make
the companies more resolute in their opposition, the executive said.
Several companies said they work hard to protect children online and
often work with law enforcement.
"But data retention is a complicated issue with implications not only
for efforts to combat child pornography but also for security,
privacy, safety, and availability of low-cost or free Internet
services," Microsoft said in a statement.
In a statement, Google said, "Any proposals related to data require
careful review and must balance the legitimate interests of individual
users, law enforcement agencies and Internet companies."
The meetings are an outgrowth of Gonzales' interest in beefing up child porn
investigations, some of which he said have been hampered by Internet
companies' failure to retain records long enough.
Gonzales, who first raised the issue in an April speech, did not name
any companies or cases. But a Justice Department official said some of
the information provided by Justin Berry, a child pornography victim
who testified to Congress in April, did not lead to arrests because
authorities who sought help from ISPs were told the records no longer
Berry criticized the department for acting too slowly on information
he provided on 1,500 pedophiles. The official spoke on condition of
anonymity because investigators still are looking into Berry's case.
At the moment, there are no broad requirements for preservation of
data, although federal authorities can request records be maintained
for up to six months when they suspect a crime has been committed.
Associated Press Technology Editor Matthew Fordahl contributed to this
On the Net:
Justice Department: http://www.usdoj.gov
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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