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Reports are that law enforcement is asking ISPs to keep records longer. Should we worry?

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Hi everyone, this is Leo Notenboom with news, commentary and answers to some of the many questions I get at askleo.info.

USA Today reported this morning that various law enforcement officials are planning to ask internet service companies to keep access records for up to two years. The goal is to aid in the ubiquitous hunt for terrorists and for those involved in child pornography.

Internet privacy is a recurring them on Ask Leo! A very common question is, essentially, "can people track me down or track what I've been doing using just the IP address of my computer?" I also get other side, "can I track down this person down or see what they've been doing with just their IP address?"

My stock response is that without the aid of the ISP, website owners or web service providers, the answer to either question is clearly no.

The information might exist, it just isn't made available. For example I have the IP addresses of every visitor to Ask Leo! over the past couple of years, but it's certainly not information I'm going hand over to just anyone. The common scenario requires that you involve law enforcement, and if you have a strong enough case, they, in turn, can subpoena the information from the various players. Assuming, of course that the information still exists.

And therein lies the problem that today's news story addresses. Many providers dump their logs after 30 or 90 days, simply to make space for new logs. Two years of Ask Leo! logs is pretty manageable, but two years of HotMail records? Or two years of Google searches? Or two years of data for any major internet service? We're talking enormous amounts of data.

The argument is that even 90 days isn't enough time for law enforcement to do their job. Apparently they've shown up at the doorsteps of various providers with subpoena in hand, only to be told that the data they're requesting no longer exists.

I think this opens up a more interesting discussion, though, that goes beyond how long data is kept. As I said earlier, you and I can't get this data - we need the help of law enforcement. But if you are law enforcement? Well then things get much easier.

I'm definitely not in the conspiracy camp - I tend to believe that what most people do on the internet is uninteresting to government, and that in general, government bureaucracy prevents it from effectively monitoring anything but the highest profile items. And I have no problem using internet logs and other data to track down pedophiles and terrorists - assuming that they've been accurately identified as such.

But I do think it's important to realize that this is happening. Big brother could be watching, and there could be more on the agenda than just bombs and porn.

Your privacy. It's an issue to be aware of, and to keep an eye on.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit ask leo dot info, and enter 10362 in the go to article number box. Leave a comment, I read them all.

This is a presentation of askleo.info, a free on-line technical question and answer service. Hundreds of questions and answers are online and ready to help solve your computer problems.

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Article C2674 - June 1, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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13 Comments
Greg Bulmash
June 2, 2006 10:07 AM

There's the old argument that if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from the government.

If you want internet privacy, you can try a distributed anonymizer like Tor. It will slow things down by a good clip, but it will help protect your privacy.

thinbluemime
June 2, 2006 4:10 PM

It never made sense to me why the government wants to hurry hurry, set up domestic programs to spy on our citizens, when we leave our borders unsecured for 5 + years after the September 11, 2001 attack.
While god knows who flows into the USA, we set up programs for domestic spying. Then the Senate passes a bill to allow the illegals to become citizens, and the domestic spying begins to make sense. I know it is goofy. Veri Chiping the legal work Visa immigrants is being discussed. How long before Vera-Chips are required for citizens, to maintain National Security? Then the ISP records can be traced to the person sitting in front of the computer at the time the "abuse" is committed.

Angry C
June 2, 2006 8:12 PM

Let me see if I understand all of this. Some people believe our government has the right to intercept and read emails and to eavesdrop on telephone calls as long as it's done under the guise of national security.

I wonder if those people would be so quick to applaud these interceptions if the government went just a little bit further. Like opening and reading our snail mail, or kicking down our doors at 3am to conduct warrantless searches... all in the name of national security.

If the government ignores that legal loophole called probable cause when it comes to phone calls and emails, what protection do we have if they decide to broaden how and where they search for terrorists? Does anyone remember the phrase "police state" and how this country worked to eradicate police states and communism?

Looks like we've come full circle... but it must be all right because OUR government is violating our rights for national security purposes.

Pentaktynos
June 3, 2006 4:24 AM

USA citizens have no personal ID thus they are protected from eventually gov-abuse!
Has any one in the last 60 years believed in this?
The moovies and the books have frequently pointed that the reason was to develope nummerous "services" with extended manpower. This is a better way of acquiring more support and power than a simple ID.

kiko
June 3, 2006 5:01 AM

"The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don't have to waste your time voting."
Charles Bukowski

Tinman
June 3, 2006 9:16 PM

Either way you look at it, this is against everything America stands for and everything our fallen veterans have died for. We have all seen the product of government spying, just look at the old communist Russia, or China now. People are afraid to go to some web sites for fear of the government calling them a dissident and bringing charges against them.
We have seen in the very short past just how law enforcement in the U.S. has falsely accused and procecuted innocent people with evidence that was conjectured with bits and pieces of evidence, nothing really concrete. You can take a surfing history of just about any average Joe and take it completely out of context as to the reasoning. And as innocent as it may be, a case can be built against you just from that.
We don't need a big brother. If I wanted to lose my freedoms I would move to a communist country.

And speaking of which, has anyone noticed in the last 20 years that Russia has become like the U.S. used to be and the U.S. is becoming like old communist Russia? Nuff Said....

David
June 4, 2006 2:56 AM

Our country was founded on the premise that we were willing to risk our lives for our freedoms, and americans have been proving that ever since. Why now does the government think that's changed? Personally, I'm not willing to give up my freedom and rights on the off chance I may be hurt or killed by terrorists. That risk is there either way. Every right taken away just makes it easier for another one to be taken away. I doubt my opinion is unique.

Nate
June 4, 2006 11:41 PM

I posted this as part of a comment on your article about free e-mails, but it's very relevant here, so I'm going to reprint part of that comment in this comment.

Through the establishment of the Patriot Act and the National Security Agency, along with the recent allotment of spaces in the supreme court to people who "don't believe the constitution outlines a right to privacy", the citizens of the United States have essentially lost all their rights to privacy. The government can know easily read your e-mails, hear your phonecalls, sift through your records, your purchases, and your location, without so much as a search warrant. Is it illegal? Sure. Does that stop them one bit? Of course not! After all, they've got to protect the country, right? How are they supposed to stop the terrorists if they don't get to watch every action of every all US citizens?

Oh, sure, who cares about privacy, right? We've got to protect the nation from terrorists, right! Obsessions with security have recently ruined a good deal of civil liberties for the American people, including our right to privacy.

That's why it's gotten to the point where people have to take their right to privacy into their own hands if they want it at all, and it begins to seem like too much trouble to have privacy, even though it was something that was free originally. Nowadays if you want your e-mail to be private you've got to encrypt it. You can't even _use_ the phone because you know someone will be tapping it. And don't even think about going inside a store or busied traffic corner to talk. And if you put your personal information online? You might as well have screamed, 'hey, world, look at me!'

It shouldn't be this hard to keep one's personal information secret, but with the advent of technology without ethical limitations, through the creation of an untamed power, both the people and the government have a power to break the rights and liberties of others. Not only that, but the modern government has justified its fascist increase of federal control over the everyday citizen's life through the mantra "must protect the country from terrorists. must protect the country from terrorists"

Well I say, what's the point of protecting a country if the only way you can is by removing what's good about it - freedom, privacy, and the right of every citizen to live how they want! How can we possibly justify removing those things for the sake of protecting them?

Personally, I'm willing to be 0.00000000000001% more likely to be blown up by a covert terrorist if it means no spying and surveillance. It's worth the risk, I don't care, I just want my care-free lifestyle back, dammit.

Smiling Carcass
June 5, 2006 10:23 AM

It seems to me that the democratic free world (I live in the UK) is changing. We are moving from the premise that "better ten guilty men go free than one innocent be punished" to the idea that in the interests of security, national or otherwise, we need to accept injustice. How can we be free if we suffer the indignities of injustice? And these movements are being done slowly, so that we accept each small incursion of our rights and when we realise we are now being dictated to, albeit by a government we have elected, it is too late. And I might make the point as a UK citizen, that I have no effective opposition party to vote for. All three major parties are now virtually indistinguishable in their agendas. They are, to a greater or lesser degree all the same politically, economically and in their approach to our legal system. I suspect the same is true in the USA and other so-called free democracies. And we, the people are walking blindly into it. Expanding on the statement made by Charles Bukowski, I would rather live under a Soviet style dictatorship, where the Government says plainly, we are in control and you will do as you are told for the good of everybody, than an elected Government that lies and tells me you are free while it is busy working to remove these freedoms surreptitiously. I rest my case.

Jan Rohde Andersen, Denmark
June 5, 2006 9:49 PM

Terrorists' goal is to eradicate freedom. Are they succeeding? It seems so, but I don't think they can do much harm. Although mankind has lived without freedom as we know it for over 100000 years and the past century where it has ruled seems an unsustainable parenthesis, please consider the system of information and science initiated by The Enlightenment and passed on to us. It's undestroyable.
Sites like Leo's, and let me name a few others: Google, eBay, Wikipedia ...., and the swarms of Discussion Forums on the internet.
The enemy of freedom is neither government nor terrorists, but ordinary people who prefer being watched to taking responsibility for their actions. During the Cold War years people here happily recruited as informers to what they called The Authorities. Reasons? Fear, envy, boredom..., who knows. They were the willing tools of the System.
I am living in Denmark (the Moh-country), where conformity has the upper hand and the word 'freedom' is indistiguishable from 'leisure time'. People wanting security and safety at any cost have no need for freedom.
Don't worry, this site is safe at no cost, only gain and joy for all parties.
Jan, Denmark

Jim Coleman
June 7, 2006 9:22 AM

We have had laws to prosecute criminals and protect citizens for many years, yet the law has been unable to prosecute most criminals (terrorist or otherwise) and certainly not able to protect it's citizens.
ERGO, the law is not able to protect us (citizens). The common knee-jerk reaction: pass more laws to protect us.
My question is, why pass more laws to help law enforcement which cannot enforce laws to enforce laws that are unenforceable???
If you (government) can't protect us (citizens), why not just go ahead and prosecute us, all???
We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Chicken Little was right. The sky IS falling.

JC Williams
June 13, 2006 8:27 PM

Take my civil liberties? Trash the Bill of Rights? It's Ok -- I wasn't using them anyway.

Lucian
March 21, 2007 11:39 AM

I like to know where my visitors live, their ISP or their company if they post from one, but it's almost imposible to get the exact location, for this we need help of ISP. You can get info at http://www.ipgp.net

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