The Privacy/Law Enforcement Legal Whipsaw

Even as the issue of privacy continues to confound much brighter people than me, the related problem of securing the Internet has also been getting a great deal of attention. This is in part due to the widely-reported announcement from Google that its servers and the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents had been hacked, leading the company to threaten to leave China altogether if its government continues to censor search results.

These attacks and the lack of adequate defenses are leading companies and law enforcement agencies to work more closely, if only after the fact. But privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are concerned about increasingly cozy relations between major Internet service providers and law enforcement agencies including the NSA.

Privacy advocates and law enforcement agencies are simply arguing past each other, with Internet companies trapped in the middle. On the one hand, privacy and consumer regulators in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere are demanding that information collectors, including communications providers, search engines and social networking sites, purge personally-identifiable user data from their servers within 12 or even 6 months.

At the same time, law enforcement agencies of the very same governments are asking the same providers to retain the very same data in the interest of criminal investigations.

ISPs and other Internet companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they retain user data they are accused of violating the privacy interests of their consumers. If they purge it, they are accused of facilitating the worst kinds of crime. This privacy/security schizophrenia has led leading Internet companies to the unusual position of asking for new regulations, if only to make clear what it is governments want them to do.

For more, see "The Other Side of Privacy."

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