Wednesday 24 January 2018

Garda authorities facing audit of how they exercise powers to snoop on phone records

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Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Garda authorities are facing an audit of how they exercise their powers to snoop on the phone and internet records of the general public.

The examination is to be conducted by Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon in the coming weeks.

It following on from an earlier report by her office, which expressed concern regarding safeguards surrounding the process.

The move was planned before the current controversy over the use by GSOC of snooping laws to access the phone records of journalists.

Ms Dixon’s office said it meets with garda authorities twice a year to assess progress on the implementation of recommendations made in a previous audit.

The news comes as it was revealed that snooping powers were used by authorities almost 6,000 times in a single year to access private phone records, the Department of Justice has revealed.

This included over 90 occasions when records were requested by the garda watchdog.

It is the first time that the extent of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission's use of snooping laws has been revealed.

The figures, for 2014, were released by the department after the Irish Independent encountered a wall of silence from investigative bodies, none of whom would disclose the extent to which they access the phone and internet records of citizens.

The department's figures offer a partial snapshot of this activity, revealing that there were 5,865 requests for mobile and telephone data.

The vast majority of the requests, some 5,513, were made by An Garda Síochána.

The Defence Forces requested phone records from telecommunications operators on 246 occasions, the Revenue Commissioners 15 and GSOC on 91 occasions.

However, the department failed to provide any figures in relation to requests for internet and email data. Nor is it known how many of the requests related to the phones of journalists.

Queries submitted to An Garda Síochána, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), the Defence Forces and the Revenue Commissioners, seeking details of their requests in recent years, were all declined.

A garda spokesman said it was not the policy of the force "to release the number of requests applied for or to comment on the specifics of any such applications".


Gardaí at the rank of chief superintendent and above have the power to seek such records, as long as they are satisfied that the data is required to prevent, detect, investigate or prosecute a serious offence. This is defined as an offence carrying a prison term of five years or more.

They do not have to get judicial approval before making a request to a telecommunications operator.

A Revenue spokeswoman said it would not be providing the information sought "in the interests of protecting the systems and procedures in place for the administration of the law".

Phone and internet records can be requested by Revenue officials at the rank of principal officer and above.

A Defence Forces spokesman did not provide any figures, but said any such access was "only authorised on the grounds of maintaining the security of the State".

GSOC said it had no comment to make.

The Department of Justice figures are somewhat lower than those previously disclosed in an EU report on the issue.

That report, which examined requests from authorities to telecommunications companies, suggested anywhere between 9,000 and 15,000 records were being accessed each year in Ireland under snooping legislation. However, the figures are historic, relating to the five-year period between 2008 and 2012.

During that period the 61,823 applications were made for phone data.

One of the country's main telecommunications operators, Vodafone, told the Irish Independent it had been campaigning for a number of years for the right to disclose how many requests it was receiving from authorities.

"During 2014 and 2015, we engaged extensively with the Government to discuss whether or not such information could be published by the authorities themselves or - if not - by Vodafone and other operators.

"The Department of Justice has informed us that we cannot disclose this information," the spokeswoman said.

Irish Independent

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