Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States law enforcement bodies attempt to secure information from corporations about clients and suppliers. This move however reached such levels that some companies had to create special departments to deal with governmental demands. a process often called “subpoena management.”
Banks, Internet Service Providers and other data processing companies say that police and intelligence agencies have been increasingly coming to them looking for information that could help authorities to stop money launderers, pedophiles or terrorists.
Internet and financial companies became a target by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Government forced them to choose between customers’ rights to privacy and their own willingness to help the the Federal institutions without acting as agents of the government.
The situation is getting very complicated when it comes to companies that are working as a contractors for government.
Time Warner – America Online has been forced to hire a dozen of employees, including several former prosecutors. They handle about 12,000 requests a year from Federal, State bodies and local police. The department works 24/7 and maintains a special hotline that police or federal agents can call anytime.
The media giant has even published a manual for law enforcement agencies that contains information about how long the company retains subscriber information, unread email and etc.
AOL said that the most common governmental requests in criminal cases relate to crimes against children, including abuse, abductions, and child pornography. Close behind are cases dealing with identity theft. The internet company announced sometimes the police requests are highly targeted, but other times are they got turned down due as inadequated. AOl claims that every request that comes in from law enforcement is reviewed by an attorney with years of experience.
But there are other cases where companies have no choice. So they just surrender records. New powers granted to the government agencies under the Patriot Act mean that Washington can secretly access people’s records from businesses without having to provide any notification or seek a permission by court. At the same time companies are prohibited by the law from disclosing that they had received such requests.
The Justice Department reported that the FBI has issued 9,200 administrative subpoenas (National Security Letters) in 2005, seeking information about 3,500 American citizens and legal residents from their banks, credit card, phone, ISP and web hosting companies without a judge’s approval. The records are supposed to be about people investigated for spying or terrorist activities, but the FBI is not required to show how they are connected to any of those.
Some companies have been withstanding to government investigations before 9/11. AOL first noticed law enforcement bodies that requested to snoop company members’ online activities in the mid-90s in child-porn cases. Fedex and UPS struggled with the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency over the attempts to get unfettered access to the shippers’ systems as part of the war against traffick of drugs.
Since 2001 however, the pressure on businesses has grown and they have been required to provide electronic information about customers’ names, addresses, shopping preferences and even personal and diversion activities. The Departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Justice, and CIA have viewed this data as an important infromation that that can be them to prevent crime activities and to identify potential terrorist threats attacks.
The Justice Department demanded last year that AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft MSN and Google shall hand over customer search records in a bid to prove that filtering software doesn’t screen kids from online porn. Google refused, saying the government abused its subpoena power by seeking information that had nothing to do with criminal prosecution. A judge ultimately ruled that Google need turn over only 50,000 Web addresses, not the one million originally put on writ.
But even sometimes companies resist to governmental requests they are not willing to do so. Phone companies for example have a history of contact with the government. The Federal institutions have been one of the telecoms’ biggest customers and phone companies multimillion contracts for services. Other IT companies also find themselves in the same situation. In any case it is not justifiable to stand agains the government even it has gone to far in its attempt to take control over the trivial round.