Week in review: Policing the Net

Some in Congress want to see ISPs track your online activities and report suspicious content to the authorities.

There's a new Congress in town, and it's going to try to clean up the Internet--again.

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate lays the groundwork for a national database of illegal images that Internet service providers would use to automatically flag and report suspicious content to police. The proposal made by Sen. John McCain also would require ISPs and perhaps some Web sites to alert the government of any illegal images of real or "cartoon" minors. Failure to do so would be punished by criminal penalties including fines of up to $300,000.

The Arizona Republican claims that his proposal will aid in investigations of child pornographers. It will "enhance the current system for Internet service providers to report online child pornography on their systems, making the failure to report child pornography a federal crime," a statement from his office said.

Civil libertarians, however, worry that the proposed legislation goes too far and could impose unreasonable burdens on anyone subject to the new regulations. And Internet companies worry about the compliance costs and argue that an existing law that requires reporting of illicit images is sufficient.

The announcement raised the ire of many CNET News.com readers in the TalkBack forum, with some alluding to an Orwellian society and others lamenting a future with fewer personal freedoms. However, one reader alarmed by the prospect of eroding privacy rights did offer a strategy for shielding children from objectionable online content.

"Want to keep your children safe? Don't let them have a computer in their room," the reader wrote. "Keep it in a public area and supervise them while they are using it.

"Technology cannot protect children online. The only thing that can is parental supervision."

Another bill introduced this week would require all Internet service providers to track their customers' online activities to aid police in future investigations. Employees of any Internet provider who fail to store that information face fines and prison terms of up to one year, the bill says. The U.S. Justice Department could order the companies to store those records indefinitely.

Supporters of the proposal say it's necessary to help track criminals if police don't respond immediately to reports of illegal activity and the relevant logs are deleted by Internet providers. But the broad wording also would permit the records to be obtained by private litigants in noncriminal cases, such as divorces and employment disputes. That raises additional privacy concerns, civil libertarians say.

All together now
Apple and the Beatles finally made their way down the long and winding road to trademark peace, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he wants to make anticopying technology a thing of yesterday.

In a rare open letter from Jobs, Apple urged record companies to abandon digital rights management technologies. The letter, posted on Apple's Web site and titled "Thoughts on Music," is a long examination of Apple's iTunes and what the future may hold for the online distribution of copy-protected music. In the letter, Jobs says Apple was forced to create a DRM system to get the world's four largest record companies on board with the iTunes Store.

But there are alternatives, Jobs wrote. Apple and the rest of the online music distributors could continue down a DRM path; Apple could license its FairPlay copy-protection technology to others; or record companies could be persuaded to license music without DRM technology. The company clearly favors the third option.

While one music fight was flaring up, Apple extinguished another. The Mac maker reached an agreement with Apple Corps, the record label started by The Beatles in 1968, concerning the use of the name "Apple" and related logos.

Under the terms of the agreement, Apple Inc. will own all trademarks and logos related to the name "Apple" and will license them accordingly to the Apple Corps music company. This marks an end to the long-running trademark feud between the two similarly named companies. Additionally, it replaces a pre-existing agreement, signed in 1991, which forbade Apple from distributing music through physical media like CDs and cassette tapes.

Another skirmish, related to music and other content played on handhelds, was taken to the streets of New York. State Sen. Carl Krueger plans to introduce legislation that would ban the use of electronic devices such as iPods, BlackBerrys and cell phones while crossing streets in major cities.

A Democrat who represents New York's 27th district in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Krueger claimed that the phenomenon of "iPod oblivion" has led to a number of fatal accidents on urban streets.

The bill would effectively make it illegal to use any kind of portable electronic device--a music or video player, cell phone, smart phone, gaming device, etc.--while crossing the street in cities such as New York, Albany and Buffalo. Offenders would be slapped with a $100 fine and a criminal court summons. Joggers and bicyclists would have to limit their iPod use to city parks in which no street crossing would be involved.

Security in the spotlight
Though Microsoft has made leaps in security over the years, even more challenges lie ahead as additional devices go online, company executives told attendees at the RSA Security Conference. The company has been developing its "Trustworthy Computing" initiative for five years, but that doesn't mean Microsoft products are now watertight, said Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at the company.

"This won't make (the products) perfect," Mundie said in a joint keynote speech with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates at the San Francisco event. "The challenges we face in building our products, and the challenges everybody faces in administering and using them, is that humans are humans and they make mistakes."

As more devices connect to the Internet, and as people demand access to data from anywhere, the security job will only get bigger and more complex. "This challenge is going to get a lot tougher," Mundie said.

Indeed, companies that offer only security products will be relegated to the history books in a few years, according to one speaker at the conference. Art Coviello, president of RSA Security, predicted the end of the standalone security industry--those companies that offer only protective services such as antivirus or encryption--within two to three years.

"Our industry is ripe for a transformation. In fact, it's already under way," Coviello declared. "With the exception of a few exceptional start-ups, there will be no standalone security businesses within three years."

In a keynote address that criticized the security industry for the way it has operated in recent years, Coviello argued that a more integrated response is needed to combat the scale of the threat facing Internet users and businesses today.

Meanwhile, online criminals are turning away from threatening companies with massive cyberattacks in favor of encrypting a victim's data and then demanding money to decrypt it, an antivirus expert said. Eugene Kaspersky, head of antivirus research at Russia's Kaspersky Labs, said the use of so-called "ransomware Trojans" is a key trend for 2007.

This malicious software infects a PC, encrypts some data and then displays an alert telling the victim to send money to get the decryption key needed to access their data again. Such malicious software isn't new. Early examples include Cryzip, discovered in March 2006, and GPCode, discovered in May 2005.

Also of note
Google said its Gmail service is now open to anyone who wants an account...President Bush's proposed $2.9 trillion budget for next year calls for increases in some scientific research funding, along with boosts for counterterrorism surveillance and screening programs...A Silicon Valley figure who fled the country after being convicted in part because of a Usenet joke about Tom Cruise and Scientology has been arrested in Arizona...Microsoft has decided to keep the venerable Hotmail brand as it works to overhaul its free Web e-mail service.

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