Posted on: August 2, 2011
The “ISP Snooping Bill”
Posted by: Brett Bisbe
Read time (comprhensive): 6 minutes
There seems to be a veritable chasm between the two sides of the “ISP Snooping Bill,” and rightfully so. It is a tense issue, to say the least. The bill, dubiously called the “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011,” has been making headlines with both sides of the political spectrum, offering staunch support and indignant opposition alike.
The bill, which requires ISPs to retain customer data records for a year – allowing police and government agencies to review them as needed – was approved by the US House of Representatives on Thursday. This means that major internet providers will be collecting, and storing, records of each and every IP address in their system, sites visited, phone numbers, emails addresses, credit card numbers, and anything else that is included in your online data.
This is really nothing new, considering there is already a law in place requiring ISPs to retain data for 90 days, but this bill comes as the face of a much larger issue. To supporters, creating a massive database of American Internet activity is the only way to protect children from predators, the only way to catch consumers and producers of child pornography. To the opposition, however, it is the mighty eye of Big Brother looming more ominously than ever.
The criticisms for the bill cover a wide variety of bases. At the surface, people are inherently opposed to a record of the online actions being available to anyone, let alone the authorities, not necessarily to hide criminal activity, but to protect a general principle of privacy. This is, however, something of a moot point – ISPs have been, and will continue to collect customer records regardless of the outcome of this particular bill.
Questions about the efficacy of the bill, however, are much more telling. First, the scale is immense. There are approximately 270 million Internet users in the United States, and managing records for a year’s worth of activity for each of these users will require a lot of resources. Combing those records for potential criminal activity will require even more. Granted that authorities will need to go through the proper legal channels to be able to search this information (subpoenas, warrants, court orders, etc.), it will still be a large undertaking to extract incriminating evidence from a year’s worth of usage history (not to mention that a law already exists to allow for this kind of data recovery in child pornography cases).
More importantly, the bill’s provisions restrict the required record keeping to commercial ISPs and customer accounts, meaning that open Wi-FI in libraries and restaurants will still allow users to surf anonymously. Also, the bill has no provisions for wireless data, so smartphone histories won’t be tracked either.
There are, of course, ways of browsing the Internet anonymously from home, whether through Tor or another VPN tool, and you could always go the way of 4g wireless in your home (if it’s available), or simply do all of your browsing on your phone or at the local coffee shop!
The question we’re all forced to ask is this: What is the point? If the effort is being put forth to keep tabs on Internet usage nation-wide, why no wireless provisions? Why give the bill such a “buzz word” type title, when the same records will be used for fraud, theft, and other web-based crimes? Even if the genesis of this legislation is rooted in good intentions, in protecting innocent children, its current face is an ugly one, appearing to be a poorly masked attempt to collect citizens’ personal data, and keep a closer watch on society at large.