Silence! In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.
—Espositio, dictator of San Marcos, in Woody Allen's 1971 film Bananas.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the most outlandish and delusional thing uttered last week by a small, powerful Hispanic man was not Hugo Chavez ranting at the United Nations about El Diablo. It was U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales telling a Senate panel that the Justice Department must have two years worth of history on every American's Web site usage.
Gonzales claimed the info hoarding is needed to stop child pornography. Assuming the Bush administration really believes that—and we'll get to that—collecting giant stacks of cyber-hay in order to find pedophiles is madness.
First, our government, at all levels, is notoriously bad at managing electronic records of any kind. Just ask the authorities in Sonoma County, CA, who announced last week that they lost arch-creepazoid John Mark Karr's entire computer. Lost it. The computer.
Securing and searching millions of IP addresses only sounds easy to clueless bureaucrats who think they are asking for the equivalent of phone records. IP addresses are not phone calls, but our dial-tone government refuses to live in a broadband world. IP addresses are temporary and in great demand. Accordingly, they are swapped out among users with regularity by Net service providers who now only retain a cache of IP records for 90 days. Two years worth of records would be difficult and costly to keep, a cost that would be passed on to consumers.
But hey, it is all worth it to catch pedophiles, right? Uh, no. Were the feds primarily concerned with catching pedos, they'd run endless variations on the honey-pot stings Dateline NBC has mounted in recent years to bank ratings gold. These creeps manifestly cannot resist the promise of vulnerable kids, as Dateline's parade of perverts captured on video attests.
Just as pedo stings zero in on the problem, a massive data dragnet strays off target. The sheer volume of information Gonzales seeks is staggering, the vast majority of it is innocent, much just routine machine-to-machine communication.
The expansion of broadband has brought with it a blizzard of web-enabled and supported software and hardware. Network activity now extends right down to the Xbox in your living room. Millions of American homes now run networks once seen only in small businesses, generating IP activity all along the way.
For example, the network log for my little 3.5 box home network shows 58 unique IP addresses accessed in just the past 24 hours. Automatic software updates now account for a good bit of the activity.
My H-P printer is positively infatuated with checking for updates for itself. Does the FBI really want a record of my printer's peripatetic activity dating back two years? Better still, wait a couple years until entirely new categories of Web-enabled consumer devices start their Net update dance. Your ice maker could be electronically frisked in Washington in order to make sure that diagnostic wasn't really kiddie porn or plans for a dirty bomb.
This brings us to the obvious fact that there is no way that these records would only be used to catch the exploiters of children. Terrorists naturally will be a targeted along with drug dealers, money launderers and others further down the scale of threats to civil society. One day two years worth of stored IP activity might also allow state and local authorities to search for taxable online transactions and ding consumers for back taxes.
Clearly the feds' primary goal is to capture, trace, and re-connect various suspicious online transactions. Here again, if the goal is to catch people who will give up a credit card number in order to view kiddie smut, the answer is targeted government stings, not indiscriminate info hoarding across the entire Internet.
And on cue there are technologies emerging which will virtually guarantee that the vast majority of what IP traffic the Gonzales proposal nets will be innocuous. The truly bad guys will go dark and surf out of sight. A mod of the Firefox browser has just been released by the white-hat hackers at Hacktivismo. The Torpark browser was envisioned as a way to keep Web browsing invisible to authoritarian government snoops in, say, China or Russia. But it should work equally well in the U.S.
Finally, the timing of this particular call to action, along with the near-automatic production of a bill tailored to the AG's demand, is positively Rovian. Rumors of a Bush administration move to play to the conservative base in time for the November election are swirling. With immigration, fiscal policy, abortion, and gay marriage all dead-ends for the White House, why not return to a tried-and-true crackdown on smut and filth?
Like Laurence Olivier's White Angel, the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, Karl Rove, having killed one twitching nerve, may have moved on to the next good nerve. If terror fears are played out, let's try kiddie porn and child molesters. There is a reason Dateline keeps running those specials—they scare the hell out of most decent Americans.
But fear is never a good basis for sound public policy. And cynical manipulation of that fear is even worse.