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Late last month, while Washington was focused on the debt ceiling, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation that could have long-term consequences on your Internet privacy. The bill requires Internet service providers to save customers' online identity numbers, known as IP addresses, for one year. The bill's stated purpose is to help police find child pornographers. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, critics worry it goes too far.
MARTIN KASTE: Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the Democratic co-sponsor of the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011.
KASTE: We have to be able to get access to the data so that law enforcement has the ability to find who these people are and arrest them and be able to rescue children who they are horrifically abusing.
KASTE: The data in question are IP addresses. Basically, it's your online ID at a given moment in time. The legislation requires your Internet provider to save your IP addresses just in case one of them turns up as a visitor on a child porn site. The problem is, says Wasserman Schultz, some Internet providers don't store IP addresses very long.
SCHULTZ: In some cases, you have Internet service providers who are actually going in the wrong direction. There's one Internet service provider that holds onto that data for seven days and then discards it.
KASTE: The thing is, the number of successful child pornography prosecutions has skyrocketed in recent years, and prosecutors are hardly at a disadvantage, says forensic technologist Jeff Fischbach.
JEFF FISCHBACH: I don't find that there's a general lack of evidence in these cases.
KASTE: Prosecutors hire Fischbach to get the digital evidence in child porn cases, and he can't recall being stymied by deleted IP records. But he says the bill may be more useful in prosecuting other crimes like financial fraud.
FISCHBACH: That's not what this bill at least claims to be aiming for. However, I have to tell you, as far as my read on the bill, it would certainly apply to those people.
KASTE: Fischbach isn't the only one reading the bill that way. Privacy groups are up in arms.
GREGORY NOJEIM: It's the China-style approach to law enforcement.
KASTE: Gregory Nojeim is senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. He points out that police already have the power to tell an Internet provider to save its records for 90 days, which can be renewed, but just the records for a particular suspect.
NOJEIM: What this is about is saving the data about everyone's use, just in case someone might become a suspect.
KASTE: The bill's sponsors have agreed to limit who's allowed to subpoena the IP addresses, reserving them for law enforcement. That should keep the stored data from becoming a honeypot of evidence for civil litigation, messy divorce cases or studios looking to sue movie pirates. But would Wasserman Schultz be willing to limit the bill even more and reserve the IP data only for child porn investigations?
SCHULTZ: No, because we think that it's already drawn narrowly enough.
KASTE: She says she's a privacy advocate, and she stresses that this is not about saving the content of people's online communications. It's just about being able to trace them.
SCHULTZ: So that when we find evidence of a crime online, we can make it more likely that you find the person who committed that crime.
KASTE: At the Center for Democracy & Technology, Greg Nojeim wonders where it stops. If this passes, he says, then the police may start pushing for another law, requiring websites to save their visitors' IP addresses too. Even though there's a lot of opposition to this bill right now in both parties, he's concerned.
NOJEIM: Naming the bill like it was named makes it harder for people to vote against it, there's no question.
KASTE: The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act heads next to the floor of the House, possibly in September. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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