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An initiative to combat child abuse images by the Irish Police has fallen foul of the Data Protection Commissioner.

The plan by An Garda Siochana was intended to reduce the availability of child abuse material online, but has been referred to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner on the grounds that it raises significant issues of privacy and data protection, and may itself be illegal.

Back in December 2010, in a letter that was leaked by online organisation Digital Rights Ireland (DRI), An Garda asked individual ISPs to take action in respect of online "child pornography". The police express themselves as "keen to implement a blocking technology in partnership with your company and other internet service providers".

Individuals attempting to access a blocked site will be directed to a "Stop" page, explaining that they have attempted to access content that it is unlawful to possess under Irish law – but that no further action will be taken against them as individuals.

However, the letter goes on to ask ISPs to provide "details of other websites visited by the user, along with other technical details, in order that we can identify any new websites that require blocking".

ISPs are reassured that the Police do not require any personal details – or any other details, such as IP address, from which the user can be identified. But in a letter to the Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawks, DRI argues that this position is naïve as well as probably being unlawful.

Accusing An Garda of contemplating committing crime in order to catch criminals, they write: "disclosure of such information would not be permitted under the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 and indeed the disclosure of browsing histories without Ministerial approval would appear to be an offence under section 98 of the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act 1983.

"It is, therefore, quite remarkable that disclosure of this information is being sought on an entirely non-legislative basis and without any reference to the legislation which is already in place in this area."

In support of its complaint, DRI cites recent suggestions by the European Data Protection Supervisor to the effect that "appropriate safeguards are needed to ensure that monitoring and/or blocking will only be done in a strictly targeted way and under judicial control".

It points out that a growing number of studies suggest that blocking does little to deal with the underlying problem, while over-inclusive blocking, as happened recently in respect of O2, can result in entire domains being blocked, when the real target is just one small sub-domain.

Finally, they argue that the idea that no personal data will be gathered is at best naïve, at worst disingenuous, as both site names and site addresses can often give rise to identification of an individual, leading to that individual being targeted by the police despite there being no evidence of them being involved in any form of criminal activity.

An Garda have yet to respond, although according to DRI, a number of individual ISPs are seriously unhappy with this approach. ®

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