The Department of Justice was reprimanded today by the U.S. Congress for suggesting the necessity of the Internet Data Retention legislation, which if passed would require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to preserve records of user activity longer, but failing to provide more details on how it could aid in criminal investigations.

At a House of Representatives hearing on Tuesday, the Justice Department suggested that a law be passed that would force ISPs to collect and store data about their customers that they would not normally retain.

The gap between providers retention practices and the needs of law enforcement can be extremely harmful to investigations that are critical to protecting the public from predators, Jason Weinstein, deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division, said.

Internet records, he said, are often the only available evidence that allows us to investigate who committed crimes on the Internet.

However, The lack of adequate, uniform and consistent data retention policies threatens our ability to use the legal tools Congress has provided to law enforcement to protect public safety, he added.

The House Justice Committee was sympathetic to the appeal but chided Weinstein for admitting that the government doesn't have a specific proposal at the moment.

While John Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary committee wondered how many years is this going to take, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said she was disappointed that the Justice Department doesn't have a specific proposal right now.

However, Schultz acknowledged that the legislation could help connect the dots in criminal investigations.

According to Weinstein, the Justice Department is not interested in forcing ISPs retain content information such as the text of e-mail, text, or SMS messages. The ISPs would, however, be expected to track and retain data of the websites visited by every Internet user.

As for the duration of retention, Weinstein said two years in a useful starting point so as not to conflict with the statute of limitations.

Weinstein, however, did not say whether information stored in social network sites or image uploading sites would come within the ambit of the new legislation.

Currently, ISPs discard of log files that's not required for business reasons such as network monitoring, fraud prevention, or billing disputes. The general rule is, however, altered when the ISPs are contacted by police performing a criminal investigation.

The data retention bill is not expected to face much opposition as many lawmakers feel the Internet has become a virtual playground for sex predators and pedophiles.

When law enforcement officers do develop leads that might ultimately result in saving a child or apprehending a pornographer, their efforts should not be frustrated because vital records were destroyed simply because there was no requirement to retain them. Every piece of discarded information could be the footprint of a child predator, said Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

However, many rights groups claim the mandatory data retention rule could harm Americans' privacy rights, aggravate the problem of identity theft, and jeopardize Americans' First Amendment right to speak anonymously on the Internet.

According to Kate Dean, the executive director of the Internet Service Provider Association, keeping track of a growing amount of personal user data would pose legal, technical and practical challenges to the ISPs.

They would require an entire industry to retain billions of discrete electronic records due to the possibility that a tiny percentage of them might contain evidence related to a crime, Dean said, adding, We think that it is important to weigh that potential value against the impact on the millions of innocent Internet users' privacy.

We're dealing with people's lives and liberty here and out of all of this data we have to make sure that, say 18 months down the road, that tiny particular piece of information is exactly the right information linking that exact target, she said.

However, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) told Dean that this is a good opportunity for the ISPs to come up with some kind of a solution because the Congress is tossing you a carrot now.

If you aren't a good rabbit and don't start eating the carrot, I'm afraid that we're all going to be throwing the stick at you, the congressman warned.

 Question to readers  Is the government justified in snooping on what we do on the Internet? Isn't our individual privacy more important? Leave your comments below.