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Internet crimes: Mandatory data retention a violation of privacy?

The U.S. Department of Justice proposed a new law to members of Congress last week that involves Internet companies and users' activity and information. This concept is not new. In previous years, others have suggested that Internet companies should have to retain information about customers.

The DOJ is now reintroducing that concept once again, but this time without specific details on how this plan could help law enforcement. Even without a specific proposal, it seems that the DOJ seeks to use this retained information to investigate Internet crimes such as online solicitation. But what does this really mean for Internet users?

Supporters of the concept believe that requiring Internet companies to keep track of customer information would allow law enforcement to find perpetrators online. However a bigger concern is whether this type of data retention violates Internet users' privacy.

Without a detailed plan, the scope of the law could be too broad. What sorts of Internet sites does this include? Does it include social networking sites? What about images and photos that people upload or send through e-mail? How long will this information be stored?

One Internet company currently retains records of Internet addresses for six months. But will this new DOJ proposal require companies to hold information for much longer? There are currently a few laws in place that are meant to aid government investigations. Typically these laws require companies to report any illegal activity or knowledge of possible illegal activity and in some cases requires them to provide records if asked by the government.

Until the DOJ presents a specific proposal, it is unclear how much this proposal could invade Internet users' privacy. Should personal information be kept on file somewhere? What if it is used for purposes unrelated to criminal investigations? Does that impede the First Amendment right to speak freely?

Source: CNET News online, "DOJ pressed for details on Internet tracking plan," Declan McCullagh, 25 January 2011

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