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Law enforcement agencies vacuum up data online, lack reporting procedures

I read your e-mailA doctoral candidate at Indiana University has published a paper claiming that law enforcement authorities are more and more commonly requesting e-mail, instant-message, and cell-phone location data, despite the gray area surrounding whether or not providers have to give up this information.

Christopher Soghoian’s paper, titled The Law Enforcement Surveillance Reporting Gap, alleges that there “are likely hundreds of thousands” of requests for information and that while this has become generally accepted and known, we should be more concerned about this type of activity being monitored and recorded. Soghoian points out that Congress requires law enforcement agents to document wiretapping, but for some reason snooping over the Internet hasn’t fallen under the same type of scrutiny. Of course, this has pushed investigation to the Web, where authorities have more freedoms.

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As it currently stands, there is no official reporting method when it comes to various methods of electronic communication surveillance. And the information is largely being given to officials by Internet providers and phone carriers alike. “Unfortunately, many companies, particularly those with the close ties to the government, will not discuss their disclosure of user data to law enforcement agencies,” Soghoian says. “ The reason for this widespread secrecy appears to be a fear that such information may scare users and give them reason to fear that their private information is not safe.” AOL, Facebook, Google, Sprint, and Time Warner are only a few of the companies that have admitted to receiving massive amounts of police requests for user information.

Of course, there is reason for this type of investigation. Investigating drug and child pornography cases account for “the majority” of this type of surveillance. But the act itself isn’t what’s being held up as ludicrous – it’s the fact that law enforcement agencies aren’t being required to create statistical reports of these actions.

While that sort of legislation hasn’t made it very far in Congress, politicians continue to lobby for increased consumer control of data-collection. Bloomberg reports that Senators John Kerry and John McCain introduced a new bill today that would let consumers mandate whether or not businesses stored their information. The bill would not include the heatedly debated “do-not-track” stipulation.

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