The 'net and twitter have been all abuzz this past week with revelations about telco and ISP cooperation with law enforcement. We've seen Wikileaks post the internal policies of MySpace and Cryptome's posting of Yahoo!'s internal policies.
Blame for this appears to be laid at the feet of the service providers.
I'm all in favour of privacy and completely in favour of government restraint. I'm even more keen on court oversight and requirements that warrants be produced in order for cops and national security types to get access to customer information. I'm also in favour of transparently and accountability. But I haven't seen much nuance in any of the online discussion of this topic. Perhaps that's just the analytical limitations of twitter and the general tone of much of the blogosphere.
Two important issues are being missed. First: just about any time you interact with any business these days, a data trail of some sort is left. If you buy a book using any credit or debit card, there's a record that can connect that purchase to you. If you check out a book from the library, there's a record. If you use a transponder-based tolling system, there's a record of where you were, when and maybe where you are going. If you use any loyalty program to collect points on your purchases, there's an even denser data trail. Your mobile phone provider knows where you phone is at all times and who you have called. This is not unique to online companies. It's simply the reality of our digital lives. Some information collection or retention may be gratuitous, but more often than not it is essential to provide the service that users are asking for. It is not unreasonable, however, to question how much information is collected and how long it is retained. Fair information practices demand that service providers only collect the amount of information necessary to provide the service and that they keep it for only as long as they need to in order to provide the service.
The second, and more important, issue: love it or loathe it, it is the law. If a third party has information about you, the government can get access to it with a court order, a warrant or a subpoena. The third party can sometimes go to court to challenge the legality of the request, but it seldom has enough information to do so. And in many cases, it really has no ability to do so. The fact is, if there is a lawful demand for information, the service provider has to comply or face criminal sanctions itself.
And that's not just unique to the US and the USA Patriot Act. In Canada, take a look at the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act or the National Defence Act. European democracies have similar rules, too. These companies are generally following their legal obligations. If you have a problem with that, energies and outrage might be more usefully channelled to changing those laws.
ISPs and telcos may influence the laws, but they generally don't make they rules they have to abide by. In short: don't hate the player, hate the game.