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Search warrants for online data soar (US)
By Will Rodger, USATODAY.com
The number of search warrants seeking citizens' online data has
soared during the past several years, a USATODAY.com study shows.
The findings, based on an examination of search warrants served on
the nation's largest Internet service provider, America Online, came
as a surprise to federal lawmakers and civil libertarians and are
prompting calls for legal reforms.
The warrants, served by state and local investigators from across
the nation, were aimed at discovering the identity and activities of
AOL subscribers. In 1997, AOL was served with 33 search warrants,
according to court logs in Loudoun County, Va., where AOL is based.
That number jumped to 167 in 1998 and 301 in 1999 an increase of
more than 800% since 1997.
This year, state and local investigators had served 191 warrants on
AOL through July 17, the logs show.
Armey: Wants to know more about cops' online searches.
Congressional leaders informed of USATODAY.com's findings said they
will examine legal standards applied to Internet investigations. At
a minimum, House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, said police
need to tell Congress when, why and how they perform electronic
Critics are concerned because they believe that electronic
surveillance of all types is a highly powerful tool that, if not
tightly controlled, violates rules against unreasonable police
"We do have reports on wiretaps," Armey said. "Why shouldn't people
have a right to know what the government is doing to access personal
correspondence in any media?"
House criticizes Carnivore
Armey's displeasure echoes the criticism members of a House
subcommittee expressed this week over the FBI's new "Carnivore"
Internet wiretapping device. Members say the FBI may be intercepting
too much e-mail when it tries to nab messages still in transit from
one Net user to another.
But privacy advocates say that while official Washington occupies
itself with the legality of Carnivore's real-time e-mail
interception, it is ignoring another, possibly more important point.
The e-mail stored in online accounts after messages have been
delivered has only a fraction of the protections afforded an ordinary
telephone call or e-mail still in transit.
Searches for online data typically involve cases ranging from
harassment and child pornography to violent crime and fraud.
As Congress moves to deal with controversies over online
communications, the White House is already rushing to address the
White House chief of staff John Podesta addressed government
searches in a speech July 17 at the National Press Club. He pledged
then that the White House would move soon to protect electronic data.
"Data transmitted over networks is not afforded the full privacy
protection we give to traditional phone calls," he said.
"Considering the extent to which our electronic correspondence
contains our most sensitive thoughts and information, shouldn't they
count, as Louis Brandeis foreshadowed more than 70 years ago, as the
papers and effects mentioned in the Fourth Amendment?
FBI officials say there is little reason for concern, contending
that stored e-mail and other online records are not as confidential
as a personal telephone call.
"It is hard to understand why information in Internet accounts is
any more sacrosanct than any other electronic document," FBI
Assistant General Counsel Thomas Gregory Motta said.
So far, Motta said, the law has treated stored records like e-mail
the same way it treats other documents like letters and diaries,
which can be seized from a home with a simple search warrant. "What
about records of my transactions at a bank?" he asked. "I can get
that with a subpoena from a grand jury."
Andrew Grosso, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in
computer law, said police inquiries at AOL probably are being
repeated at other Internet service providers (ISPs) and Web mail
providers throughout the USA.
"All ISPs have experienced a significant increase in the number of
search warrants and subpoenas," he said.
Police goals vary
What authorities are looking for can vary by case. In some
instances, the logs show, police ask for and get limited information
from AOL, such as subscriber identity, billing data and payment
Other times police request all such information, plus e-mail; the
online "handles" and names of people cataloged in members' "buddy
lists"; all files attached to e-mail; and all other information
contained about the subscriber in the America Online databases.
To comply with the more extensive order, experts say, AOL must be
handing over a great deal.
"They can get all information," said Mark Rasch, a former federal
prosecutor and vice president for cyber law at Global Integrity in
suburban Washington, D.C. "They can get your credit card data and
everything you've filed with them. They can get a record of what
times you dialed in, where you dialed in from, how long you were
online, what activities you were engaged in, what Web sites you
visited, what chat sessions you were in and what you said there."
"Why shouldn't people have a right to know what the government is
doing to access personal correspondence in any media?"
-- House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas.
Internet service companies are privy to everything their members do
online. But ISPs vary greatly in their record retention policies,
said Mark Rorabaugh, president of Internet provider Two Radical
Technologies Inc. Some ISPs may keep e-mail for two years or more.
Others may throw the messages away after a few weeks. And that will
affect authorities' ability to get what they want in criminal
For instance, Rorabaugh said, companies that host Web sites often
keep records of the numeric Internet addresses that hit their sites
for years, yet only the visitor's ISP can disclose which subscriber
is behind that number. And in many cases, Rorabaugh said, that
information may never be recorded.
Chat sessions, likewise, are usually discarded as quickly as they
are generated. But news reports have said AOL has kept chat sessions
for days after the chats are over.
"AOL is the only company I've heard of that supposedly keeps chat,"
America Online spokesman Nicholas Graham said the company had no
comment on law enforcement's growing interest in subscriber records.
Court Chief Deputy Clerk Mari Hommel said there was no guarantee the
logs recorded every single search warrant served on AOL. Still, she
said, clerks note AOL warrants as a matter of "customary practice"
in order to track their progress once they are returned to the
Warrant logs 'extremely accurate'
Data contained in Loudoun County search-warrant logs are "extremely
accurate," said Ron Horak, the county investigator whose sole job is
to help state and local police from around the country serve
warrants for AOL user records.
"I'm estimating the process is climbing at about 100-150 warrants
per year," Horak said.
So what do the police want from AOL?
A random sample of 14 such warrants over the last 18 months showed
that 10 asked for all data the service had on targeted subscribers.
In every case, legal experts say, the law requires that investigators
show that the information sought relates to an investigation. Still,
they say, the standard falls far short of legal protections required
to obtain conventional wiretaps.
As with all warrants, in these cases police had to show "probable
cause" that a crime had been committed. But their job would have
been a lot harder if they had to clear the same hurdles as agents who
For the FBI to get permission to tap a phone or live e-mail
transmission, for instance, agents must first conclude that no other
technique can get the information they need without ruining the
Once they are sure a wiretap is the only way to get what they want,
agents must then run the proposal past their legal staff. From
there, requests go to the bureau's Washington office, where the
bureau's Office of General Counsel examines the legality of the
request. If the General Counsel's office approves the request, it
passes it to the Justice Department, where law clerks examine the
request before passing it on to senior management. The attorney
general or one of the top dozen or so officials there must sign the
Only then can it go to a judge, who may approve the order for no
more than 30 days at a stretch. Many years judges approve all of the
1,000 or more requests they receive.
Armey: Burden of proof should be higher
Though Armey stopped short of saying all Internet investigations
should face the same hurdles, he did say police must face a higher
burden of proof than they do now when they want access to Internet
data. "It seems to me someone is being reckless in issuing broad
reaching warrants under (current) standards," he said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney said there are no
statistics on how often federal officers get Internet users' data
for crime investigations because there are no reporting requirements
for the online activity.
Privacy advocates say they will press the federal government to
bring rules for electronic searches closer to the ones used for
"It is clear the law is not adequate to protect people's privacy,"
said David Banisar, senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy
Information Center. "There does need to be changes in the law so a
person's e-mail is given the same legal protection as their phone
calls. It is also clear there needs to be oversight of this because
what has gone on so far has not been made public."
The lack of record-keeping "is a huge oversight failure," said James
Dempsey, senior staff counsel to the Center for Democracy and
Technology, a Washington, DC, public interest group that gets most
of its funding from high-tech companies. "There's no one even in the
Justice Department who knows what the scope of monitoring of
electronic communications is. That's a serious problem in and of
Indeed, as more Americans choose to keep their calendars, bank
accounts, diaries and more online, they become more susceptible to
police search than ever before, Dempsey said.
No legal experts contacted for this article could name a case in
which data other than e-mail or chat sessions had been seized in a
criminal prosecution. Still, they said, it is only a matter of time
before such a case surfaces.
"The scary thing is so much of your life is going to be accessible
on the Internet, not just e-mail," Global Integrity's Rasch said.
"What sites I logged into, what I bought on those sites, my calendar,
all those things I typed in there's a trail."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Congress needs to weigh those
"The law has not caught up with the fact that we are storing more
and more personal information not on our PCs but on network-based
files," he said. "That means it gets exponentially easier to snoop on
our finances and schedules and doctor's appointments, not to mention
the messages we send and the products we buy and the sites we visit.
We need clear rules of the road on privacy to be followed by the
government and also by commercial and other private users of the
The FBI's Motta conceded that people store more data than ever on
the Internet. Even so, he said, that growth will harm police if they
must face higher obstacles to seizing it than they would in other
"Say I'm a drug dealer," he said. "Why would I keep my information
at home when I can keep it on (another site)?"
Also in this issue:
- Britain passes 'Big Brother' bill
LONDON - Big Brother is alive and well in the United Kingdom at
least according to critics of wide-sweeping legislation passed in
the British House of Commons that will allow the police to intercept
- Key nodes make Internet vulnerable to cyber-terrorism: researchers
LONDON - Cyber-terrorists could take advantage of key nodes that
allow information to travel on the Internet, researchers said
- Concern growing over Quebec woman's pedophile site (Canada)
JONQUIERE, QUEBEC - A Quebec woman who runs a French Web site that
posts pictures of pedophiles on the Internet wants to expand the
service across Canada and around the world.
- Napster seeking to block order shutting down online music service (US)
The online music swapping service Napster plans to file an appeal in
a federal appeals court Thursday, seeking to block a district
judge's order that would essentially shut Napster down.
- Reno Describes FBI Internet-Wiretap System Review (US)
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno described on Thursday a two-step
process to review a new FBI Internet-wiretap system called Carnivore
that has raised privacy concerns. With lawmakers and privacy
advocates concerned the system allows for widespread surveillance of
e-mails, Reno said the first step will be for a group of academic
experts to conduct a detailed review of the computer program's source
- Insiders say order won't stop swaps (US)
Napster's co-founder reacts to a judge's order to restrict online
trading of copyrighted music, saying other technologies could do far
more harm to the recording industry.
- Iraq's first Internet café opens up the world
Iraq has seen its first ever Internet café open. Set up by the
enterprising Ba'athist government - which is headed of course by the
West's best friend and man of the people Saddam Hussein - the café
is another great example of how the Internet can bring us all
together, make us more tolerant of other people's views and cultures.
- ABC News: Ecommerce Causes Tax Shortfall in US
Between USD300 million and USD3.8 billion of potential tax revenue
will be lost by authorities in the US this year as more and more
consumers shop on the Internet.
- Low-income Canadians surf Web as often as rich
But tastes diverge between groups, 2000 report says
Canadian Web surfers are just as likely to be low-income as
high-income, according to the latest Internet ratings report.
- Child Sexual Predators Getting Caught on Web (US)
In person, Ken Hansen would not have a prayer of successfully
impersonating a 12-year-old girl.
- Network Solutions inches toward domain auctions
Network Solutions has taken the first step toward creating a domain
name auction on its Web site.
- Search warrants for online data soar (US)
The number of search warrants seeking citizens' online data has
soared during the past several years, a USATODAY.com study shows.
- Traffic Doesn't Necessarily Equal Revenue
Dot-com earnings have been a hot topic recently. Wall Street is
demanding that dot-coms find ways to achieve profitability quicker.
- Napster Ruling Alters Business (US)
If a federal court order that Napster Inc. shut down its
music-swapping service kills the company, it will have quite an
- New Lists and Journals
* ADD: Arab Hackz, A place for freedom of speech and freedom of the
mind that allowed knowledge to pass through it unfiltered. The
ethical side of the underground, the side that penetrated
systems not to destroy, but to create knowledge in the minds
of everyone who viewed its contents. A place where hackers,
phreaks, crackers, warez and the like could go to expand their
minds or just hang out and interact with others like them.
* ADD: wireless-internet, Focuses on the implications of wireless
technology for Web developers. WML and creating content for wireless
* ADD: webgraphics, Discussion of Web graphics - Compression, the
Web-safe palette, PNG, watermarks.