June 15, 2012 at 7:11 PM ET
If you were to do a little casual searching for enriched uranium or used AK-47s, you might show up on the FBI's radar, and tools that have been in place for years let them associate your computer's IP address with a name, company or location (FBI.gov itself, for example, above). But a new Internet protocol threatens existing methods, and the FBI warns that unless existing Internet management companies make some changes, it will become far more difficult to track down criminals the way they do today.
IPv6 is a new version of the numbering system that underlies Internet addresses. The previous version has actually run out of unique numbers to issue for websites and servers, but the new one is much more future-proof. The problem is that existing bookkeeping methods for recording and retaining IP addresses aren't going to be sufficient for the new system.
Today there are complete registries of what IPv4 addresses are "owned" by an operator. Depending on how the IPv6 system is rolled out, that registry may or may not be sufficient for law enforcement to identify what device is accessing the Internet.
It's part of a larger problem: law enforcement's ability to monitor the Internet is falling behind the way the Internet operates, and the way people use it. New services and ways of communicating are coming out faster than laws can be made and modified. Recently they have complained of being unable to access data using the anonymizing Tor network, and have met with companies like Google and Facebook to ask for backdoor access. Only if approved by a judge, of course.
With IPv6, the FBI contends that access isn't the problem, but that the companies allocating, managing, and tracking IP addresses are not planning on putting in the effort to meet the FBI's needs. All those new IP addresses, millions and billions of them, may not be tracked as minutely as they used to when there were fewer to worry about.
If these companies would voluntarily up their game, that would be ideal, says the FBI. If requirements have to be legislated, relationships are strained and companies will escape through loopholes as the process of mending the law lags behind.
IPv6 is still a ways from being rolled out universally, however, so there's still plenty of time for the FBI to negotiate. Whether anyone will play ball is another story altogether.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.