April 29, 2006

Sounding the Alarm on Government-Mandated Data Retention


A few days ago in this message, I commented on Attorney General Gonzales' recent statement regarding data retention, and the alarming slippery slope that I feel this represented.

Now, this article reports that a Democratic Congresswoman is proposing to fast-track a bill or amendment to require essentially permanent retention of users' Internet activity data (until at least one year after the user closes their account). For long-term users, this means effectively permanent retention.

Again, I must note the supreme ironies. It was only a few months ago that people were screaming bloody murder about DoJ demanding Search Engine records -- a demand that apparently only Google had the backbone to appropriately resist, noting the sensitivity of the data involved. This controversy triggered calls (including in some legislative quarters) for a law mandating the destruction of much related data after some reasonable, relatively short interval, with appropriate designated exceptions for R&D, business development, and the like.

Now, by waving the red flag of fighting child pornography, seemingly intelligent and usually well-meaning legislators appear ready to create the mother of all big-brother database laws, a treasure trove of personal data that will ultimately be available for every fishing expedition under the sun.

For those persons who trust the government not to abuse such data, I hasten to note that these kinds of infrastructures, once in place, tend to be self-perpetuating, and will be available to future governments as well, including administrations who might not be as "benign" as the current one.

The article referenced above correctly notes the comparison with the McMartin Preschool child abuse witch-hunts of years ago. Hysteria over the abhorrent and real problem of child porn is being used to potentially decimate broad and critical privacy rights -- with the high probability of negative effects and consequences that are almost impossible to overstate.

If we do not maintain a balance between law enforcement goals (including but not limited to child abuse issues), and privacy rights, we will be flushing those rights we've had as law-abiding citizens down the toilet -- all in the name of seemingly laudable goals.

The Internet is rapidly becoming involved in most technology-based human communications. The sensitivity of Internet user activity data can be enormous. Broadly mandated data retention would move us drastically toward the realm of previously unimaginable "nightmare" scenarios (such as requiring the recording of all telephone calls, or the installation of government cameras in bedrooms -- both actions that could indeed be useful for law enforcement purposes).

Without wishing to sound melodramatic, I strongly assert that if we don't take a stand now, we are likely to see the wonders of the Net repurposed into shackles that have the potential to undermine the very basis of our fundamental freedoms.


Posted by Lauren at April 29, 2006 12:04 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein