House Approves Data-Mongering ISP Snooping Bill (and What That Means for You)

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The Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 was approved Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives, and will force internet service providers (ISPs) to keep logs of their customers for up to one year for police review.

CNET reports that the bill is intended to crack down on child pornography, and will include private information such as names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank accounts and temporarily-assigned IP addresses, as well as a log of the websites you visit.

The approval is considered a major victory for House conservatives, who, in a 19 to 10 committee vote, have fought fervently in favor of data retention.

Numerous reports assert that pornography cases throughout the United States are on the rise, with the U.S. Department of Justice stating that prosecutions are up 40% since 2006, resulting in roughly 9,000 cases.

(MORE: Why Your Private Information Wants to Be Free)

Of course, lots (and I mean lots) of people are understandably outraged.

“The bill is mislabeled,” said senior Democrat Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who served on the panel and fought the bill. “This is not protecting children from Internet pornography. It’s creating a database for everybody in this country for a lot of other purposes.”

I have to agree 100% with Lifehacker here, which makes an excellent point (highlights added):

Consider the browser history of a single person over the course of a year, and then multiply that by 272,100,000. Then try to find 10,000 people in that data that have, at some point during that year, downloaded at least a single piece of child pornography. Finding a needle in a haystack is hard, but it gets to be pretty close to impossible when that haystack is the size of a country.

While the bill’s intentions are admirable, its means are horribly misguided. Child pornography is a serious problem, but infringing on the private information of countless internet users isn’t just highly inefficient, it’s dumb.

Can you imagine sifting through that much user data? Even for a web database as big as Facebook, which recently partnered with Microsoft’s Photo DNA (an advanced photo recognition system) to weed out questionable content, identifying child pornography can still be problematic. Last week, even Google got into a newfangled mess when they  incorrectly shuttered one man’s user account due to flagged content.

The bill, however, has its loopholes.

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Namely, mobile devices are exempt from having data logged. Devices like tablets or phones equipped with 3G (or even 4G) can browse worry-free. While it’s nice for average users, remember: It’s an equally easy point of entry for would-be child porn collectors.

Also, there are several easy, very Google-able ways to encrypt your connection using Virtual Privacy Networks (VPNs), which reroute your web traffic through third-party servers, rendering you harder to trace. Plenty of torrenters use VPNs all the time. Lifehacker has a few more suggestions on how you can prevent your data from being collected here.

What’s especially maddening is that any scumbag who wants to download child pornography can take advantage of these same loopholes. Does it make the whole thing feel pointless? Maybe. To me, the main problem is that it feels like a highly inefficient waste of resources (think of all the servers) and a gigantic waste of data.

Already knowing that your private data is out there to be combed over by authorities can be harrowing, but it was already easily obtainable if requested. Prior to the bill’s passing, law enforcement authorities could contact service providers directly to gather data on potential law breakers, and typically it’d be in the ISPs’ best interests to comply.

(MORE: Internet Privacy Controls Challenge Tech Industry)

The question, now, is whether or not bypassing this step will make their jobs any easier, which of course, will be nearly impossible to measure, save anything short of child pornography cases cutting down drastically in the near future. But even then: Is it worth it?

“I oppose this bill,” says Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and previous chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “It can be amended, but I don’t think it can be fixed… It poses numerous risks that well outweigh any benefits, and I’m not convinced it will contribute in a significant way to protecting children.”

Chris Gayomali is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @chrigz, on Facebook, or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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