Kiss Your Cyberprivacy Goodbye

Alex Woodward on a bill that would require your ISP to store and turn over your Internet history to the Feds ... and Louisiana politicos aren't sure how they'll vote.


A congressional bill would force Internet service providers to retain your online history for up to 18 months and turn it over to the Feds at a moment's notice — all in the name of protecting children from Internet predators. And Louisiana legislators are on the fence about it.

How can you not vote for the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011? A "no" vote would strike a resounding, humiliating blow to your chances of re-election. Or would it?

  The bipartisan measure's broad sweep is a potential kiddie porn-ring killer. But its other casualties include all Internet users, whose IP addresses (your computer's unique web browsing number) will be logged by Internet service providers (ISP) for up to 18 months.

  The resolution, authored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., passed 19-10 in the House judiciary committee in July. The bill amends Section 2703 of title 18 of the U.S. Code to say, "A provider of an electronic communication service or remote computing service shall retain for a period of at least 18 months the temporarily assigned network addresses the service assigns to each account." The people targeted aren't necessarily sex offenders or suspected child predators. The rules apply to all Internet users. Authorities won't need a warrant to see your information. They just have to ask the ISP.

A rewrite expanded the data retention to include addresses, credit card numbers, email addresses and other sensitive personal information submitted online (including pornography).

  Smith said in a statement, "Investigators need the assistance of Internet Service Providers to identify users and distributers of online child pornography. This bill requires ISPs to retain subscriber records, similar to records retained by telephone companies, to aid law enforcement officials in their fight against child sexual exploitation. ... When investigators develop leads that might result in saving a child or apprehending a pedophile, their efforts should not be frustrated because vital records were destroyed simply because there was no requirement to retain them. Every piece of prematurely discarded information could be the footprint of a child predator. This bill ensures that the online footprints of predators are not erased."

  In the statement, Wasserman Schultz added, "This bill will ensure that officers of the law have the information they need to identify and apprehend those who abuse and violate children."

  Many ISPs already retain certain user information specifically for authorities under Section 2703, which requires "disclosure of customer communications of records." Opponents of the latest resolution say it oversteps all sorts of privacy boundaries.

  "You lose any measure of privacy in the interest of monitoring the activities of a very small number of people," says Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, which opposes the legislation. "The idea the government should be able to snoop on what everyone does, that's sort of a classic 'killing a flea with a sledgehammer.'"

Where do local legislators stand? Louisiana's very recent history of child pornography suggests any crackdown measures would get a hearty thumbs up.

  Following last year's bust of the "Dreamboard" child pornography ring (with ties to Lafayette and Shreveport), and the subsequent arrests and prosecutions of 72 of its members, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters this month that the ring was "the pre-eminent online community for the promotion of child sexual exploitation." The bust was the largest ever in the U.S.

  On Aug. 10, former Department of Environmental Quality scientist Michael Drury pled guilty to child pornography charges stemming from a 2009 bust in which authorities found dozens of images on two laptop computers and three storage drives from Drury's home.

  In his 2009 State of the State address, Gov. Bobby Jindal said he'd support any legislation to increase penalties against child predators. In his book Leadership and Crisis, Jindal wrote, "The Internet has become the hub of predators, particularly sexual predators who prey on women and children. In Louisiana, we are doing everything we can to make these people miserable. Make no mistake, we are not just trying to stop those who would attack and abuse our young. No, that's far too modest a goal. We mean to do them harm and end their despicable crimes." The governor also suggests chemical castration for repeat offenders. "The American public is ready for a crushing crackdown on these criminals," Jindal wrote.

  Robert Sawicki, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, says the senator is reviewing the proposed legislation while it is pending before a committee (on which Landrieu doesn't serve). Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond of New Orleans also is reviewing the bill. Aketa Simmons, Richmond's communications director, says the congressman "supports efforts to stamp out child pornography." Gambit's requests for comments from Sen. David Vitter and Rep. John Fleming, both Republicans, were not answered by press time.

  In an era of praise for "small government" legislation, some of its biggest defenders are throwing their support behind the bill. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, ran as an "outspoken defender of individual privacy rights," according to his website. He's one of the bill's co-sponsors.

  The legislation also has the support of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Center for Victims of Crime, the National Sheriff's Association, the Major County Sheriff's Association, the International Union of Police Associations and the Fraternal Order of Police.

The measure is too broad to pass the smell test in the House — it'll likely be rewritten to limit the scope of snooping allowed, according to Kimberly Mason, a University of New Orleans College of Education and Human Development professor who specializes in Internet security and child protection issues.

  "I understand the reasoning behind wanting to implement this bill — trying to protect kids from pedophiles," she says. "However, the downfall of this bill is the privacy issue that generalizes to everyone — meaning whomever my Internet provider may be, they are going to be required for the next 18 months to maintain all my information. My IP address, my name, my address where I live, bank account information, personal information associated with that account — and keeping all that information without my permission to keep kids safe."

  Mason also fears ISPs may be forced to invest in larger databases and monitoring systems to filter that information — the proposed legislation adds a safety amendment, ensuring the 18 months' worth of data is protected ("stored securely to protect customer privacy and prevent against breaches of the records").

  "Where is that money going to be passed along? Typically, the consumer," she says. "You're going to have to store a year-and-a-half of information that is going to be encrypted in order for others not to have access."

  The logging of IP addresses creates a digital footprint of website traffic. By zeroing in on certain addresses, authorities can trail users frequenting (or uploading to) child porn websites. Some "anonymizer" proxy tools attempt to conceal IP identities for "secure" web browsing. Mason says child predators, like those arrested following the Dreamboard bust, employ networks of dummy addresses and aliases to avoid suspicion. "Who's to say, through this bill, the same thing isn't going to happen?" she says. "They could easily mask who they are.

  "Where does the law protect citizens from having their information being ascertained without my permission, when there really is no probable cause to get my information?" Mason says. "That's the biggest downfall in looking at consumer and privacy issues in just technology in general."

  Authorities and ISPs have tried in the past to gain control over user information — with little success. In 2006, Department of Justice officials met with Comcast, AOL and other companies to convince them to retain at least two years' worth of user data. The deal didn't work out.

  "Certainly there are people who have used the Internet for Internet-based crimes, and it could be appropriate to impose restrictions on those people," Esman says. "But to presume guilt on the part of every person in this country is not the appropriate way to solve a problem."

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