Eroding Privacy

Rich Tehrani : Communications and Technology Blog -
Rich Tehrani
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Eroding Privacy

There is the assumption of anonymity on the Internet. When you surf alone in a room you might be inclined to think no one knows what you do or what sites you visit. To the surprise of many, there are so many subpoenas coming to today's ISPs and search engines that these companies have subpoena management departments to deal with the influx of requests for information. Here is an excellent account on how privacy on the Internet is nonexistent.

The types of requests vary from what users have searched for to the content of their e-mail and even requests for map related searches.

Yet, many people still feel that the Internet is anonymous and don't realize that law enforcement officials are able to find who is doing what and use this information to arrest and convict criminals. More recently many have become worried that the government may be acquiring information on the surfing habits of innocent people as well and this why there has been a surge in interest in
Internet privacy tools and techniques.

What may be surprising is how many times ISPs and other companies actually
reject requests for information due to the broad nature of such requests or when it deems an agency does not have jurisdiction to request certain information.

I have to admit that watching how other more authoritarian governments monitor and block web traffic, I have always been happy to live in a country with freedom of speech and expression. I must say that I do worry that our system of checks and balances is getting far out of whack. After all, it seems now that ISPs and dotcoms are defending the constitution while the government fights to gain access to confidential information.

Aside from web behemoths there are all sorts of smaller companies that receive government requests for information daily. These smaller companies do not always have the legal teams to ascertain whether the government has authority to receive this information or not. In many cases what may be considered confidential data is given out without much thought. While I don't want to sound alarm bells off here there is obviously much to be concerned about in our new future filled with increased levels of security.

America has always been the land of freedom and opportunity. For years our government seemed almost ignorant of the myriad ways it could monitor its citizens and visitors.

In this new post 911 world it has become apparent that the primary goal of government is to defend citizens. While most agree this is crucial, in doing so we need to ensure basic rights are not eroded to a point where we become like the many countries we are trying to free.

But while many are concerned about essential freedoms in the US and hope that our government will focus on ensuring the privacy of innocent people, our lawmakers are instead looking to China and giving America's tech companies
grief for caving to the demands of the Chinese government. In my opinion if our government is so interested in China and how it treats its citizens, it needs to take it up with China and not the likes of Cisco and Google. After all, these companies can easily be replaced in China and don't have a lock on the market. You might argue that it is very difficult to clone a Pentium processor but it is relatively simple to clone search engines and routers.

Let's hope the focus of the US government comes back to our shores soon and ensures that the privacy of the innocent is protected and the constitution upheld.


Requests for information have become so common that most big Internet companies, as well as telephone companies, have a formal process for what is often called subpoena management. Most of the information sought about users is basic, but very personal: their names, where they live, when they were last online - and, if a court issues a search warrant, what they are writing and reading in their e-mail. (Not surprisingly, the interpretation of voluminous computer records can be error-prone, and instances of mistaken identity have also come to light.)

AOL, for example, has more than a dozen people, including several former prosecutors, handling the nearly 1,000 requests it receives each month for information in criminal and civil cases. The most common requests in criminal cases relate to children - threats, abductions and pornography. Next come cases of identity theft, then computer hacking. But with more than 20 million customers, AOL has been called on to help in nearly every sort of legal action.

In recent years, "we found ourselves involved in every imaginable classification of traditional crimes, from murder to the whole scope of criminal behavior, because AOL was used to communicate or there is some trace evidence," said Christopher Bubb, assistant general counsel at AOL.

Investigators have found new ways to identify people who visit Web sites anonymously or use a false identity. Many Web sites keep a log of all user activity, and they record the Internet Protocol address of each user. I.P. addresses are assigned in blocks to Internet service providers, who use them to route information to the computers of their users. If an investigator determines the I.P. address used by a suspect, he can subpoena the Internet provider for the identity of the user associated with that address at a particular date and time.

For example, in investigating a bomb threat at a Canadian high school in 2002, Mr. Ohm approached the operator of a message board in California on which the threats were placed. He asked to review the log monitoring each user's activities, which showed the Internet Protocol address of the person who left the threatening message. Mr. Ohm used that address in turn to determine the suspect's Internet service provider, who identified a teenager who had posted the message. (As a minor, he was not prosecuted.)

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