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Criminal Probes Hurt by Lack of Saved Internet Data, U.S. Says

U.S. criminal investigations are being hurt by cell phone and Internet providers who fail to retain records showing who is using their services and how they are used, a Justice Department official said.

Because some providers don’t save the data, investigations “are being frustrated,” said Jason Weinstein, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division, in prepared congressional testimony. He cited a probe of people trading images of child sex abuse.

In many cases, the records -- sometimes kept for months, other times kept “very briefly” -- are the only available evidence to investigate who committed crimes on the Internet, said Weinstein, who testified at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing today.

“They may be the only way to learn, for example, that a certain Internet address was used by a particular human being to engage in or facilitate a criminal offense,” Weinstein said.

Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, previously backed legislation that would require providers to retain records on the identify of an Internet protocol address -- unique numbers that identify each computer connected to the Internet -- for at least two years. He hasn’t yet reintroduced the measure this year.

John B. Morris Jr., general counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, a civil liberties group, said in a prepared statement to the subcommittee that requiring data retention “raises serious privacy and free-speech concerns” and would “aggravate the problem of identity theft.”

‘Significant Challenges’

Kate Dean, executive director of the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association, said in prepared testimony that “a blanket legal requirement to retain Internet usage data for established time periods is certain to present significant challenges to the communications industry.”

The “sheer volume of data” makes gathering and storing it a “daunting” task and also raises legal and privacy concerns, she said. Members of the Internet association include Dallas- based AT&T Inc. and Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp.

Weinstein cited a case in which law enforcement officials are seeking to identify members of online groups using social networking sites to trade images of sexual abuse of children. Investigators sought to identify suspects based on Internet protocol addresses, he said. Out of 172 requests to Internet providers, 19 percent resulted in no information because data wasn’t retained, he said.

“Lack of data retention has to date prevented us from identifying the investigation’s chief U.S. target,” he said.

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