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It's funny how the federal government's position on behavioral targeting changes when it wants to use the information gathered. According to CNET:
"The FBI is pressing Internet service providers to record which Web sites customers visit and retain those logs for two years, a requirement that law enforcement believes could help it in investigations of child pornography and other serious crimes."
Mueller has been interested in online consumer data since 2006, when he initially called for internet service providers to track internet users.
While any tool that makes it easier to find and track sex offenders sounds like a good thing, giving the federal government access to every citizen's web surfing habits is riddled with problems.
For starters, it's exactly the kind of thing that ISPs got in trouble for attempting in 2008, when companies like NebuAd, Phorm, FrontPorch and Project Rialto cropped up with promises to get ISPs into the marketing business.
ISP attempts to collect consumer data from surfing habits was short lived — almost all of those companies have been hobbled to the point of obsolescence. But now the FBI wants to rehabilitate the practice — and keep consumer data for longer than anyone online currently does.
According to CNET:
"Greg Motta, the chief of the FBI's digital evidence section, said that the bureau was trying to preserve its existing ability to conduct criminal investigations. Federal regulations in place since at least 1986 require phone companies that offer toll service to 'retain for a period of 18 months' records including 'the name, address, and telephone number of the caller, telephone number called, date, time and length of the call.'"
But there is much more information to be gained about consumers online than what can be found in phone records. The FBI would only be able to access the information on individual investigations for which they have a warrant. But the amount of data ISPs would have to hold onto to allow for that is extensive.
Most are not currently equipped to get it. Drew Arena, Verizon's vice president and associate general counsel for law enforcement compliance, tells CNET:
"We're not set up to keep URL information anywhere in the network...if you were do to deep packet inspection to see all the URLs, you would arguably violate the Wiretap Act."
The assumption is that the FBI wouldn't be sharing this information with anyone — including the ISPs collecting the data — but having the stores of consumer information online necessary to make this useful raises all sorts of privacy, security and theft concerns.
For marketers, the length of time that the FBI wants to keep the data is important. Congress is pushing online companies to retain customer data for shorter and shorter periods. (Bing recently lowered its retention period to six months.) But the FBI needs data on all consumers for TWO years to be able to do anything of value with it?
Maybe the FBI should speak with Congress about how this whole process works.