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Patient info could be caught in data net

The AMA has raised concerns the Federal Government’s contentious data retention laws could be used to compromise patient privacy and potentially undermine the doctor-patient relationship.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has written to federal MPs including Attorney-General George Brandis, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare raising concerns about the potential for the laws to be used to gather detailed information about a person’s medical condition and health status.

“Metadata can potentially be used to create a profile of an individual based on access to health services,” A/Professor Owler wrote. “This might include the services they may call, emails to and from health providers, SMS appointment reminders and the like. When aggregated, this information could reveal a great deal about someone’s health status.”

Under the laws, telephone companies and internet service providers are required to retain the details of every electronic communication they handle, including the identity of a subscriber and the source, destination, date, time, duration and type of communication. The information stored, known as metadata, does not include the content of a message, phone call, email or an individual’s web-browsing history.

Under the legislation, passed with bi-partisan support late last month, 85 security and policing agencies will have access to an individual’s metadata for up to two years after it is created.

The Government has argued that the laws are crucial to thwarting terrorist activities and preventing serious crime, and has sought to reassure the public that the powers would be used carefully and sparingly.

But law experts and civil liberties groups have raised fears about scope for intrusion on individual privacy.

University of New South Wales law professor George Williams wrote in The Age that the laws would “permit access to the data of every member of the community. Where, for example, the information relates to doctors and their patients, or lawyers and their clients, a government agency will not need to gain a warrant, or to consider whether accessing this information is in the public interest.”

In his letter to the MPs, A/Professor Owler noted that the Law Council of Australia had also expressed concern about the detail of the legislation’s wording, “including with regard to potential access to health information”.

Greens Senator Penny Wright, who was among those who opposed the legislation, warned the measure could have the effect of deterring people from seeking medical help, including online support services.

“With [the] increasing use of online services for mental health, there is a serious risk that this Bill will undermine people’s trust in these online services, with a flow-on risk to access to mental health services and the mental health generally,” Senator Wright said in Australian Doctor.

A/Professor Owler has told senior Coalition and Labor MPs they need to address such concerns “to assure people and health professionals alike that the privacy of health information remains protected”.

Adrian Rollins