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New ISP database laws: Vital or Dangerous? Data Retention Regulations 2009

8 April 2009 Written by broad
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New laws have recently been passed that will require your ISP to log your activity on the internet. The ‘Data Retention Regulations 2009’ EU directive places legal obligations on every ISP to retain personal details of internet users. This includes Internet telephony, email and web browsing history.

These powers will be limited to data such as a time, date and IP address and won’t extend to actual email content. They will however store your entire browsing history including all pages you’ve visited or attempted to visit. Details of fixed and mobile calls will go even further, providing the government with the geographical data of the call. The act has been around for a while but has only now been updated this week to include the law on internet communication.

There’s a debate that’s being widely ignored by television news media between regular citizens, government ministers, pro-privacy organisations and millions of bloggers. The topic? Is the act there to prevent against serious, large scale crime such as terrorism or does it exist only to enable the government to access a ‘big brother’ style database that George Orwell predicted in his classic book, 1984? We took a subjective look through some of advantages and disadvantage of the new law.

The Good

 

Terorrism / Law Enforcement

The data kept in such a scheme would be, as the regulations state: “for the purpose of the investigation, detection and prosecution of serious crime, as defined by each Member State in its national law.” The main usage for such data in the past has always been to enforce ‘real-life’ evidence or collaborate stories. It is rarely, if ever used to actually prevent terrorism. However, it may well have saved lives and brought criminals to justice. Authorities report that telephone data gathered under the old version of this act made a “significant contribution” to the investigation surrounding the 7 July 2005 London Bombings.

Preventing Long term ICT / Internet crime

So crime prevention might not be the order of the day as far as data retention is concerned, but it can help bring criminals to justice. It also has strong applications in fighting cyber crime such as fraud and hacking. It’s common to see ICT crimes not even being discovered or reported for months, so being able to look back through an entire years data makes it far easier for law enforcement agencies to track down criminals.

The ‘European Working Party on Information Technology Crime’ (EWPITC) wrote in 2001 that: “It is absolutely imperative that the retention period of vital “traffic data” is set o a minimum of 12 months. It cited offences such as drugs trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism as some of the largest areas this data could help enforce.

The Bad

 

Public Cost

Data retention is not just about forcing ISPs to hand over data; it’s about setting up the whole system. Because a law like this has never been passed before, most telecommunications companies simply don’t have the hardware and software on hand to process the information. In the UK, the government’s solution has been to spend taxpayer’s money on the program. The cost to get all UK companies up to speed with the new law is estimated at around £48 million. In a recession, many members of the public see this money as an unnecessary waste.

Effectiveness

Like most forms of law enforcement, it’s not fool proof. The type of highly organised and well funded criminal organizations such as terrorism and global cyber crime groups would have little problem in avoiding having their communications logged. Heinz Kiefer, president of the European Confederation of Police commented on his doubts about the effectiveness of data retention: “it remains easy for criminals to avoid detection through fairly simple means…The result would be that a vast effort is made with little more effect on criminals and terrorists than to slightly irritate them.”

Criminals online are able to adopt a variety of techniques in order to avoid detection. These include using private networks, peer to peer technology, proxies and internet cafes. It’s not any harder to hide data on the internet than it is to use a disposable mobile phone. Privacy groups believe that the real criminals are the only people that aren’t being punished by the new legislation and claim that it’s real purpose is to create a ‘big brother’ state where the government has the ability to spy on its citizens.

The Future

If some of that sounds a little too conspiratorial for you, cast your mind back five years or so when the government were using anti-terrorism law as a means to quell protests about the Iraq war. Most moderate privacy campaigners agree that some level of retention is required, but believe the limit should be between five to seven days instead of an entire year.

Regardless of debate, the law has now been passed. How far laws like this will go depends on citizens and businesses speaking out about their concerns. Although this specific regulation has passed with relatively little opposition, a similar claim aimed at users of social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace has had a much tougher time in recent weeks. We might not be seeing George Orwell’s vision of the future come to life just yet but a close eye must kept on privacy and data protection laws in the future.

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