Law enforcers want help from social networking sites

Justice Department weighs mandating that Internet service providers retain data for defined period.

Efforts to prosecute crimes related to online social-networking sites would be aided if Internet protocol numbers could be accessed once investigations begin, an official said Thursday.

"Companies that operate social Web sites have a responsibility" to prevent the improper use of their sites, Steven Del Negro from the Massachusetts Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force said during a conference on such sites.

When law enforcement needs to track children immediately based on information discovered on sites like Facebook and MySpace, "we need to talk to companies immediately and not go through 'press 1, press 2, press 3' and then be told they are closed for the day," Del Negro said at an event hosted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

But he noted that "I truly believe that the legitimate companies really want to do the right thing, and most of the time they do."

Law enforcers and child advocates are concerned by the way young people use social-networking sites to post photographs and personal information. They said pedophiles have turned to the sites to pose as innocuous friends or teenagers in order to attract attention via sexual or other inappropriate material.

Del Negro said that once pictures get posted on the Internet, law enforcement has little ability to remove them.

"The challenge of these sites is to capture the Internet protocol number," he said. However, even if the number is retained, it is only held for a short amount of time and is difficult to track. "Generally by the time we get called to investigate, the information is gone," Del Negro said.

Frank Kardasz, project director of the Arizona Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said investigators always hope the data from Internet service providers is available by the time investigations ensue.

A 1996 federal law requires ISPs to retain records in their possession for 90 days if requested by the government. ISPs also must report sightings of child pornography.

The Justice Department reportedly has been considering mandating that ISPs retain data for a set period. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., has spoken in favor of forcing ISPs to keep records. But a representative from the Progress and Freedom Foundation said the group opposes government-mandated data retention.

"Most ISPs will be willing to retain data on a potential bad guy for as long as the government wants if they go through the traditional procedures," PFF senior fellow Adam Thierer said. "But there is a world of difference between that and requiring ISPs to record all information for all users for an extended amount of time."

Kardasz said one problem is that overall there appears to be less public outcry about Internet crimes targeting children than about homeland security. Further, Internet crime-fighters often are understaffed, and children are frequently marginalized in society, he said.

Arnold Bell, chief of the FBI's innocent images unit, said the goal is to make social-networking sites as safe as possible. He called for cooperation between law enforcement and industry.