Search Warrants Keep AOL Busy: Company Assists Columbine Probe

Article excerpt

Hours after 12 students and a teacher were fatally shot in a Colorado school, America Online employees gathered every scrap of information they could from the Internet accounts of two students suspected in the shootings.

AOL knew the FBI would come to its Loudoun County headquarters armed with high-tech search warrants, the same way dozens of other police agencies have. Loudoun's Circuit Court clerk's office has been doing a land-office business handling Internet warrants.

Warrants used to be obtained to gather evidence from a suspect's home or car. Then came wire taps and warrants to check telephone records.

Now it's a criminal's electronic persona that may be searched.

The World Wide Web is, for many, the equivalent of an on-line diary - a "digital footprint," according to David Sobel general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in the District.

Eric David Harris, one of the suspected shooters in Colorado, had a Web site that included a description of how to build a pipe bomb, which he described as "one of deadliest and most effective ways to kill people."

He included images of skulls, devils and weapons to illustrate lyrics from favorite bands, and on the day before the shooting reportedly wrote a message saying, "Today is my last day on Earth" and "Be prepared."

All of that gives investigators - and anyone else who cared to log on - insight into the mind of someone who may have done the unthinkable.

Michael O'Neill, an assistant professor at George Mason University's law school, said warrants for Internet information are a natural evolution. But, he said, it's a privacy issue that needs to be considered.

Mr. Sobel agreed.

"The average person goes about business on line with an illusion of their anonymity," he said.

One can always point to cases like the Colorado shootings where everyone agrees computer records can be used for good purposes, he said. But the records are also open to civil subpoenas.

That means damaging information about someone's on-line life simply awaits a divorce proceeding or other civil action to become public.

And there's the issue of jurisdiction. Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group is involved in just such a fight in the Loudoun courts.

A judge in Pennsylvania has tried to subpoena the records for a World Wide Web site which, she charges, slandered her. …