The truth is out there, and it’s a detailed log of what you’ve been up to. Buried in the digital noise of internet packet traffic, cell network requests, and VIC card grocery lists is a record of what you do while on the grid. Dark rooms with racks of whirring fans cooling hard drives silently record each connection.
Before you get all paranoid, admit that you’ve probably wanted that info at some time. Your girlfriend leaves her cellphone on the table after a fight, and you’re tempted to click through recent calls. Or your child keeps breaking curfew, and you want to see where da party at. But how do you get that info if you don’t know the person (hello, moto pervo), or don’t want to know the person (howdy, Danny Al-Qaeda)?
Law enforcement agencies have a number of legal tools at their disposal, recently broadened with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendment bill that lets telecoms off the hook. They have made so many requests of Comcast, in fact, that last year the company decided to distribute a document called Comcast Cable Law Enforcement Handbook, which details how the fuzz can get your stuff.
The handbook lays out the specific legal requirements for figuring out who exactly is “muffhunter23.” In their defense, it sticks to the specifics of the law and is downright demanding for special requests. For example, requests through an NSA letter must be hand-delivered by a FBI Special Agent. Somewhere out there, Mulder’s sifting through your chat log at EZhookup.net. You’ve been warned.
But aside from the ominous national security intel monitoring, the document details some of the other murkier approaches. Federal or state warrants are required to access stored email, but that’s only if they are retained through webmail. Hint hint: If you use POP from your own client and choose to “remove from server,” it’s actually deleted and they can’t retrieve it. Other information, like name, address, telephone number, and bank account numbers, is obtainable through simpler subpoenas.
Subpoenas are often issued by a lawyer and are not subject to third-party review, i.e., a judge. So, you can get sued in civil court and the lawyer can subpoena your information. Also, most federal agencies can issue administrative subpoenas, and the lack of oversight means that power is easily abused.
The indeterminate power of some law enforcement requests is in question locally, too. Defense attorney Paul Thurmond is currently involved in a case where a detective issued a “Letter of Demand” to a utility company asking for all the known addresses of a customer. It complied and the police found 300 marijuana plants in one of the residences, resulting in an arrest. The legality of that request is in question and the results could impact future company records requests, including Internet Service Providers.
So-called D-orders, referring to Title 18 of the U.S. Code 2703(D), are used to get the real identities of net surfers. Local efforts to root out child pornographers have been delayed by a Spartanburg judge’s ruling against state use of the law. Chad Simpson, of the Solicitor’s Office, says 12 to 14 child pornography cases are now delayed because of the potential outcome of the decision.
CCP‘s lawyer Edward Fenno has a different appreciate in civil matters: “I sue ‘John Doe’ (which starts a lawsuit and gives me subpoena power), serve the ISP with the subpoena seeking the identity of the opposing party, and then amend the lawsuit Complaint to insert the person’s identity once it has been provided by the ISP,” Fenno writes.
If you personally want to find out someone’s identity based on a screen name or IP address, the requirements are pretty stiff. You have to sue them to find out who they are, and that can be expensive. Otherwise, call the cops. The Charleston Police Department has an internet crimes bureau. And if it’s really getting crazy, contact the FBI in Columbia.
So you can sleep well, despite the fact that your internet and cell phone companies know everything. They’re not making it easy for snoops, yet.