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To Catch A Messenger

AOL IM instant messenger computer chat
AOL/CBS
This was written by CBS News producer Rob Hendin.

As law enforcement continues to investigate former Congressman Mark Foley's actions with former House pages, the scandal is quickly turning into a he said - he said scenario. So, the mission for law enforcement officials will first be to verify the email and instant messenger traffic that is reportedly being provided by the former pages themselves.

That's easier said than done.

America Online (AOL), with whom Congressman Foley had an email account, tells CBS News that many electronic communications are not archived for very long, if at all. That includes Instant Messenger records which are not saved at all. So the only records of IM chats that exist are ones saved by one of the parties involved which is, in this case, the former pages. This means that if law enforcement went to AOL for assistance to verify the conversations that occurred over IM, AOL couldn't help them.

All AOL can tell anyone is if one user was logged into the system at any given time. With millions of users logged in daily, that information is almost meaningless.

The Foley scandal may also involve emails. AOL says that, due to privacy and electronic issues, emails are only kept, in general, for about a week for incoming messages and about a month for outgoing messages.

AOL and other Internet providers have been party to recent discussions with the Department of Justice over data retention, keeping records of users' Internet activity for use in criminal investigations.

Specifically, the Justice Department is asking Internet providers to retain IP, or Internet protocol, information for users. That way, investigators can look up what websites a particular user visited at a particular time. That information, they say, could help investigators in child pornography cases, but not necessarily with the Foley matter.

These policies apply primarily to individual users working from personal computers. People who use IM and outside email at work may have their communications archived by their employers.