Why does the FBI hate America?

From reader THM comes this story about the FBI’s wanting ISPs to track their customers’ online activities:

“Terrorists coordinate their plans cloaked in the anonymity of the Internet, as do violent sexual predators prowling chat rooms,” (FBI Director) Mueller said in a speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Boston.

“All too often, we find that before we can catch these offenders, Internet service providers have unwittingly deleted the very records that would help us identify these offenders and protect future victims,” Mueller said. “We must find a balance between the legitimate need for privacy and law enforcement’s clear need for access.”

The speech to the law enforcement group, which approved a resolution on the topic earlier in the day, echoes other calls from Bush administration officials to force private firms to record information about customers. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for instance, told Congress last month that “this is a national problem that requires federal legislation.”

In Europe, such data retention rules are already in place:

The Europe-wide requirement applies to a wide variety of “traffic” and “location” data, including: the identities of the customers’ correspondents; the date, time and duration of phone calls, VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls or e-mail messages; and the location of the device used for the communications. But the “content” of the communications is not supposed to be retained. The rules are expected to take effect in 2008.

You would think that if a law enforcement agency wanted to get information on a particular person’s online activities or needed to say, trace back the identities of terrorists in anonymous chat-rooms, they already have a mechanism to do so – you know, probable cause, a warrant. And in fact, ISPs argue that existing data retention requirements should be sufficient for a criminal investigation. Law enforcement groups beg to differ:

Law enforcement groups claim that by the time they contact Internet service providers, customers’ records may have been deleted in the routine course of business. Industry representatives, however, say that if police respond to tips promptly instead of dawdling, it would be difficult to imagine any investigation that would be imperiled.

It’s unclear what an American data retention law would look like – would the ISP be required to keep content, like emails? Will search engines be forced to keep logs of user requests? But what makes me the most uneasy about such proposals is the context in which they are happening. We have data-mining, Echelon, warrantless wire-tapping, renditions, legalized torture and the gutting of habeas corpus, all of which adds up to the diminishment of the rule of law and the strengthening of a culture of surveillance, one in which the expression of authority can easily become arbitrary and abusive.

If you have a tool, you tend to use it. And as someone once said, a gun doesn’t care what it shoots.

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