Health Policy

Health bodies to get details of citizens internet use

Public bodies in the UK, including health authorities, could be given the power to access details of everyone’s personal text messages, emails and internet use if new Home Office proposals are passed. The British government office has published a consultation paper, which considers making logs of all telephone calls and internet usage, including e-mails mandatory for at least 12 months. The paper is in response to a European Parliament directive, issued in March 2006, on the “retention of data generated or processed in connection with the provision of publicly available electronic communications services/networks.” In the UK, access to personal internet and text data will be made available to all public bodies licensed under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), including health authorities, if the paper is approved. These will only be able to be accessed for investigations into crime or other threats to public safety. In health this includes checking for previous complaints relating to cruelty, abuse or self-harm. The Home Office said the measure will mean companies have to store “a billion incidents of data exchange a day”, and that as it derives from an EU directive, the data will be made available to public investigators across Europe. Details of personal internet and text traffic, but not the content, will have to be made available by telecommunications companies to public sector officials investigating crime, or to “protect the public”. It will also cover voice over internet protocol calls, such as those made on Skype. An EU spokesperson told EHI: “The directive has been issued as guidance by the European Parliament and it is up to individual member states how they adopt these. The aim is to have regulations in place across the region by next year at the latest.” The spokesperson was unable to give information on how individual member states are addressing this. The British document says systems like this have successfully been introduced in the USA though organisations such as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, which is dedicated to eradicating the sexual abuse of children. The vast majority of CEOP’s work is by resolution of IP addresses, e-mail addresses and increasingly mobile phone numbers. During the period March to June 2008 CEOP identified 96 suspects (who have been arrested) and safeguarded 30 children through the use of internet related data. A UK Home Office spokesman told EHI: “This data would allows investigators to identify suspects, examine their contacts, establish relationships between conspirators and place them in a specific location at a certain time. “It also gives investigators the potential to identify other forensic opportunities, identify witnesses and premises of evidential interest. Many alibis are proven or refuted through the use of communications data. Without the EC directive investigative opportunities will be increasingly lost.” However, UK opposition MPs said the powers would result in Britain becoming a “snooping state”. Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, said: “We will be told it is for use in combating terrorism and organised crime but if RIPA powers are anything to go by, it will soon be used to spy on ordinary people’s kids, pets and bins.” Shadow home secretary, Dominic Grieve, added: “Yet again the government have proved themselves unable to resist the temptation to take a power quite properly designed to combat terrorism to snoop on the lives of ordinary people in everyday circumstances.” The consultation is open for responses until 31 October.


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