Monday 26 September 2016

How Government monitors our phones is shrouded in secrecy

Published 19/01/2016 | 02:30

The government does not allow any disclosure of whose phones are tapped and will not reveal even anonymised information around how often this happens (stock image)
The government does not allow any disclosure of whose phones are tapped and will not reveal even anonymised information around how often this happens (stock image)

When it comes to Irish authorities perusing details of our everyday phone calls, the Government tries to keep as much knowledge of the process as shrouded in secrecy as possible.

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It won't allow any disclosure of whose phones are tapped or reveal even anonymised information around how often this happens.

Instead, it limits any questions we might have of vague "communications data" statistics from phone companies.

Take mobile operators. The most recent data released by the country's largest mobile operator, Vodafone, shows there were 7,973 requests for 'communications data' from Irish police and security agencies in the 12 months between April 2014 and March 2015.

This is a big jump on the same figure (4,124 requests) for the 12 months before that.

'Communications data' generally refers to what is also known as 'metadata'.

This usually means information surrounding the actual content of a conversation or message, such as telephone numbers, email addresses or location information.

In some cases, it can also include a person's name, physical address and details of services subscribed to.

"It is possible to learn a great deal about an individual's movements, interests and relationships from an analysis of metadata without ever accessing the actual content of any communications," said a spokesman for Vodafone.

The operator added that it was not authorised to disclose any further interventions by Irish authorities during the same time period that directly accessed live conversations, voice messages or text messages between people in Ireland.

"We approached the authorities to seek clarity on the disclosure of aggregate statistics related to lawful interception demands," said the operator in a statement.

"In response, the authorities instructed us not to disclose this information.

"We engaged extensively with the Government to discuss whether or not such information could be published by the authorities. The Government has again informed us that we cannot disclose this information."

Irish operators, said Vodafone, were told that it is "unlawful to disclose any aspect of how lawful interception is conducted" by Irish authorities.

Neither Hutchison Whampoa, which owns 3 Ireland and forms the network basis for Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile and iD, nor Eircom's Meteor disclose any information about requests from Irish authorities' for call data.

Irish Independent

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