Saturday 7 December 2019

Justice Minister: 'Let's be very clear. There is no wide-spread snooping on private individuals'

GSOC chairperson authorised access to telephone records

Former Chief Justice John Murray will undertake the review. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Former Chief Justice John Murray will undertake the review. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Kevin Doyle, Shane Phelan and Cormac McQuinn

JUSTICE Minister Frances Fitzgerald has denied that there is "wide-spread snooping" on private citizens' phone records.

She was responding to reports that the Gardai and other agencies including GSOC sought to access phone records on almost 62,000 occasions in the five years up to 2012 and that similar requests were made almost 6,000 times in 2014 alone.

A review of the laws that allow bodies including GSOC to access the phone records of journalists will not be complete until after the General Election.

And the examination will only cover access to records of the media - not the wider public, it was revealed yesterday.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has given former chief justice John Murray three months to carry out a study of international best practice.

She said that the number of requests to access information is "not out of line" with other jurisdictions.

Asked if a review of the practice should be expanded she replied: "Let's be very clear. There is no wide-spread snooping on private individuals, private citizen's phones or their records. I want to say that to the public.

"What we have is a system in place outlined in the 2011 legislation where the Gardai when they are concerned about serious crime, about a threat to the security of the state or threat to someone's life, where they have the powers to access phone logs or phone records.

"When you examine the statistics of about 8,000 request by the guards every year that is not out of line.

"For example in the UK - you would have over 725,000 requests from their police there.

"So in terms of the percentages in Ireland it is relatively low internationally and what the review will do is it will examine whether further safeguards are needed in relation to access to journalists phones."

Ms Fitzgerald was speaking at the launch of the Second National Strategy for Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence to cover the years 2016 to 2021.

She announced €950,000 in funding to raise awareness of the issue, calling the problem domestic and sexual violence "pernicious evils and a blight on any civilalised society".

Mr Justice Murray is tasked with suggesting possible legislative changes that will give journalists the "strongest possible protection that we can provide under the law to protect their sources".

The review will cover any bodies that have power to access phone logs, including An Garda Síochána, Defence Forces and Revenue Commissioners.

However, Mr Justice Murray must limit his work purely to how the Communications (Data Retention) Act 2011 impacts on journalists and not ordinary citizens.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties' executive director Mark Kelly said the review was "a significant step in the right direction" but the exercise of snooping powers on the general public must also be reviewed.

"The Council regrets that the scope of the review of the 2011 Act has been limited to its use in relation to journalists," he said.

"This legislation is used by law enforcement agencies to capture a wide range of private information about members of the public.

"The oversight shortcomings that this review will certainly identify are far from confined to cases where the data belongs to members of the media."

NUJ Secretary General Seamus Dooley agrees that ordinary citizens should be included in the scope of the review. He said he would give a “qualified welcome to the review” given his disappointment that no interim solution has been introduced to cover the period until the review is published.

“It would be very naïve to think that there would be any action within a six month period following Mr Justice Murray’s review so I would be disappointed at the scale of that.”

“The fact that the minister has acted so promptly and that there is also party support for the principle of journalism as entitled to protect the confidential sources of information is welcome, but I would have a concern at the timescale,” he told RTE's Morning Ireland.

“I do believe that it could be possible to amend the legislation on an interim basis to make provision for judicial oversight of applications by GSOC and then have a more comprehensive review which should also include the rights of ordinary citizens.”

He added: “I would share the concern of ICCL and digital rights Ireland that the Murray review is only going to refer to journalists. I acknowledge what the Minister is saying: this is a complex issue. And I think we can deal with the immediate problem in the short term and have a more comprehensive review.”

As the crisis in justice deepened, it emerged requests for access to telephone records by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) are made at the level of the chairperson.

Ms Fitzgerald met yesterday with the chairperson, Mary Ellen Ring, who, she said, assured her that "strict procedures" were in place.

"I assured Ms Justice Ring that there is no question whatsoever of the review of the law in this area reflecting any lack of confidence in GSOC and that this review arises not from the facts of any particular case, rather the general concerns which have arisen about the overall balance of the law in this area," the minster said.

"I was reassured by Judge Mary Ellen Ring that the actions carried out by GSOC were within the law."

Ms Fitzgerald said she did not know how many journalists have had their data accessed by GSOC.

The minister said her department had been in discussion with the Garda Síochána and was "reassured that the law is followed to the letter" in relation to the monitoring of phone calls.

She said it was not possible to immediately stop snooping on phone records as there were "complex" issues involved.

The issue was raised later in the Dáil by deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace.

Ms Daly appealed to the minister to extend the scope of the review to include "all of the surveillance legislation that is on our books, the use of that and powers that rest with the gardaí, with the Revenue, with the Defence Forces and other State bodies which are not open to proper scrutiny or Freedom of Information requests".

"All citizens deserve to have their privacy and human rights protected, and the rightful outcry in relation to journalists' phones being intercepted should be shared in relation to other citizens' rights," she said.

However, the minister said that she was determined to get "a speedy report".

"The purpose of the 2011 Data Retention Act is not to pry into the communications or privacy of individuals.

"It is to support the work of statutory agencies who are carrying out important investigations... on what has to be serious criminal offences," Ms Fitzgerald added.

While announcing the review, Ms Fitzgerald stressed she had no role in the process of requesting or authorising access to telephone records.

"That would simply not be appropriate in the context of the independent functions of bodies such as GSOC," she said.

Mr Justice Murray was Attorney General for a period in 1982 and again from 1987 to 1991.

The General Election is due to be held in the next six weeks.

Irish Independent

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