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This tiny ISP is standing up to the surveillance state

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The National Security Agency (NSA) is gorging on all the world's metadata and city councilors are snooping on your email to see if you've illegally littered. But there's at least one Internet company that cares about your privacy.

XMission, Utah's oldest Internet service provider, is refusing to hand over customer data to law enforcement agencies, subpoenas be damned.

That firmly places XMission in the 0.1 percent of Internet service providers around the country that refuse to comply with a Utah law that gives prosecutors broad powers to secretly snoop on the online trails of suspected child predators.

Pete Ashdown, XMission's owner, says that law is a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects U.S. citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, because the special administrative subpoenas permitted under the law skip the court system entirely. There's no judicial review, just a demand to hand over personal data. And the state attorney general's office demands a lot of data, the Salt Lake Tribune reports:

"In one subpoena obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune with IP address redacted, the attorney general’s office said law enforcement believed an XMission user possessed and distributed child porn on Nov. 5, 2011. The Jan. 26, 2012, subpoena ordered XMission to hand over subscriber names and addresses, as well as phone records, length of online sessions and source of payment for service, 'including credit card or bank account numbers.'"

Ashdown has refused four such requests in as many years. Not to protect child predators, he says, but to protect the Constitution. And what's really telling is that the attorney general's office has never taken him to court over the refusals. NPR's Martin Kaste has an idea why—namely, that prosecutors are pretty sure they'll lose.

As long as the vast majority of ISPs continue to comply with the subpoenas for connection data, it may be smarter for law enforcement not to risk creating a case that could go up the ladder to the Supreme Court, which signaled in 2012 that it has serious reservations about warrantless electronic surveillance.

So, in other words, states like Utah are basically skating along on what may be unconstitutional snooping laws because the majority of ISPs around the country don't have the guts to say "no."

Photo by maha-online/Flickr