Data Commissioner defends journalists' rights - and plans to audit gardaí
The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner will check again on concerns it previously expressed about the breach of controls surrounding garda access to phone data.
It says journalists' freedom must be protected, as garda authorities face a major inspection into access of telecoms data by members of the force.
"Further regard must be had to the importance of journalistic freedom of expression and independence, in addition to the fundamental right to data privacy" said a statement from the office of the commissioner, Helen Dixon (pictured inset).
A previous inspection conducted at Garda Headquarters found a case where an officer below the rank of chief superintendent had sought access to phone subscriber data in 2012.
The request was only signed off by a chief superintendent, as required by law, after it had already been made.
An audit report, issued in March 2014, expressed concern about the episode.
Gardaí said the chief superintendent had initially been bypassed due to the volumes of requests for subscriber data being made. At the time, 40 requests were being made per day.
Ms Dixon's office subsequently received reassurances that processes had been changed to ensure all applications were now approved in advance by a chief superintendent.
However, it now plans another audit of the force's practice in relation to accessing the personal data of citizens.
"Since the publication of this office's audit in 2014, members of the audit team have met with An Garda Síochána on a twice-yearly basis to assess progress on implementation of the recommendations made in the audit," the statement said.
"At its latest meeting with An Garda Síochána on January 13, the office signalled its plans to conduct a follow-up inspection early in 2016 of the areas covered under the 2014 audit report which dealt with access to telecommunications data.
"The inspection will include detailed examination of approvals granted. The office will also be inspecting the practice of the other prescribed public authorities within the first half of this year."
The commissioner also welcomed the review announced by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald of laws which currently allow authorities to access the phone and internet records of journalists without first having to inform them or seek the approval of a judge.
"Given the serious nature of the interference with fundamental rights in such cases, it is essential that the legislative and practical provisions in place for implementation and oversight in this area are kept under constant review," the statement said.
"In addition the actual practice and effectiveness of implementation of the oversight mechanisms must be carefully considered."
Gardaí were responsible for 94pc of requests for access to telephone records in 2014.
The force filed 5,513 requests for phone data.
A further 2,753 requests were made by gardaí for internet data in the same year.
Snooping on phone and internet records – the numbers
There are four authorities in Ireland which can request access to the telephone and internet data of private individuals.
These are An Garda Síochana, the Defence Forces, the Revenue Commissioners and, more recently, the Garda Síochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).
Since 2008, the annual volume of requests made to telecommunications companies for phone and email data has ranged between around 9,000 and 14,300 a year, based on figures disclosed to date.
14,095 REQUESTS WERE MADE
5,317 related to landlines, 5,873 to mobile phones and 2,905 were internet-related.
11,283 REQUESTS WERE MADE
4,542 related to landlines, 5,239 to mobile phones and 1,502 were internet-related.
14,298 REQUESTS WERE MADE
4,694 related to landlines, 5,768 to mobile phones and 4,464 were internet-related.
12,688 REQUESTS WERE MADE
3,525 related to landlines, 5,062 to mobile phones and 4,101 were internet-related.
8,829 REQUESTS WERE MADE
2,286 related to landlines, 4,356 to mobile phones and 2,187 were internet-related.
7,917 REQUESTS WERE MADE
6,543 were related to telephones – An Garda Síochána (6,058), the Defence Forces (158), Revenue Commissioners (32) and GSOC (295).
1,374 were related to internet data – An Garda Síochána (1,351) and the Defence Forces (23)
8,622 REQUESTS WERE MADE
5,865 were related to telephones – An Garda Síochána (5,513), the Defence Forces (246), Revenue Commissioners (15) and GSOC (91).
2,757 were related to internet data – An Garda Síochána (2,753) and the Defence Forces (4)
The Department of Justice says figures for this period are not yet available.