FBI Director Robert Mueller on Tuesday called on Internet service providers to record their customers' online activities, a move that anticipates a fierce debate over privacy and law enforcement in Washington next year.
"Terrorists coordinate their plans cloaked in the anonymity of the Internet, as do violent sexual predators prowling chat rooms," Mueller said in a speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Boston.
"All too often, we find that before we can catch these offenders, Internet service providers have unwittingly deleted the very records that would help us identify these offenders and protect future victims," Mueller said. "We must find a balance between the legitimate need for privacy and law enforcement's clear need for access."
The speech to the law enforcement group, which approved a resolution on the topic earlier in the day, echoes other calls from Bush administration officials to force private firms to record information about customers. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for instance, told Congress last month that "this is a national problem that requires federal legislation."
Justice Department officials admit privately that data retention legislation is controversial enough that there wasn't time to ease it through the U.S. Congress before politicians left to campaign for re-election. Instead, the idea is expected to surface in early 2007, and one Democratic politician has already promised legislation.
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