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Tuesday, 11 June, 2002, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
'Massive abuse' of privacy feared
Keyboard and mouse
Careful, someone might be watching
Plans to increase the number of organisations that can look at records of what you do online could lead to widespread abuse of personal information, warn experts.

The UK Government this week unveiled a draft list of organisations that will be given the right to request information about the web, telephone and fax lives of British citizens under the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Civil liberty campaigners have little faith that government safeguards will be effective in policing the use of sensitive information passed to organisations not connected with law enforcement.

Industry groups also warn that the technical and financial burden of complying with huge numbers of requests for information could cause problems for some firms.

'Massive abuse'

Government departments
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Health
Home Office
Trade and Industry
Transport, Local Government and the Regions
Work and Pensions
Enterprise, Trade and Investment for Northern Ireland
Before now under the RIP Act, only law enforcement organisations could ask for permission to look at logs of the sites people visit, who they are exchanging e-mail with and which telephone or fax numbers they call.

Only police forces, intelligence services, Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue could ask communication service providers for logs of what their customers are doing.

Now another 24 organisations, which include every local authority, are getting the power to request these logs.

Local authorities
Any local authority in England and Wales
Local councils
Fire authorities
District councils
Common Services Agency of the Scottish Health Service
Central Services Agency for the Northern Ireland's Health and Social Services.
Ian Brown, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (Fipr), said many of the organisations being handed these powers had little or no experience of handling such confidential information.

He told BBC News Online that this meant there was "massive scope for abuse" of personal information and would likely mean a huge increase in the number of requests.

Before now law enforcement organisations wanting to look at communication information had to get permission from a judge.

By contrast the RIP Act allows organisations that want to look at this data to get permission from their own senior managers.

Other bodies
Environment Agency
Financial Services Authority
Food Standards Agency
Health and Safety Executive
Information Commissioner
Office of Fair Trading
Postal Services Commission
Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency
Scottish Environment Protection Agency
UK Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary
New postal service providers
The government is currently drawing up rules dictating how organisations should treat this sensitive communication information.

"But," said Mr Brown, "how seriously in practice they will follow these guidelines we do not know.

"Just what experience the Department for the Environment or the Office of Fair Trading would bring to this is another question."

Mr Brown also doubted that the government's own watchdog, called the Interception Commissioner, would be able to police requests for the use of information about someone's communication habits.

"The Interception Commissioner has been under-resourced for what they are supposed to do at the moment," said Mr Brown. "How they are supposed to oversee the use of these powers by these 20 plus government bodies is beyond me."

The Internet Service Providers Association also has worries about the extension of RIP Act powers to more organisations.

"It all amounts to high costs for the industry in terms of time and money," said an ISPA spokesman.

He said ISPA was still waiting to hear from the government about financial help for members that have to collect, store and pass on data about customers.

See also:

06 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
22 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
18 Apr 01 | Science/Nature
18 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
01 Jun 01 | Science/Nature
15 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
11 Jun 02 | UK Politics
Links to more Science/Nature stories are at the foot of the page.


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