The Department of Justice is considering new laws that would give gardaí investigating child abuse imagery and other serious crimes the power to demand passwords to digital devices.
Officials are also examining if laws are required to implement an international convention that would compel service providers to provide law enforcement with interceptions of digital communications.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said this week that the ability to demand people's passwords to their digital devices “should be a power open to us”. He said it should be part of a warrant to search a location, allowing gardaí to gather both physical and digital evidence.
In relation to accessing encrypted communications, such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, he said that laws providing law enforcement with an “electronic key” would be “very useful”.
He said: “Criminals, not only in the child abuse space but right across all elements of organised crime, are relying more on encryption and we wish to be in a position to defeat that.”
The Department of Justice said it is considering the requests from the Garda chief as part of a review of laws flowing from Ireland's signing of a Council of Europe convention on cybercrime.
The treaty dates back to 2002, but Ireland has not yet ratified it.
“The Department is currently examining existing law to identify what new provisions, if any, might be required to allow for the ratification of the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime,” the Department of Justice statement read.
“This includes an examination of the existing law in relation to search and production orders.”
It added: “An Garda Síochána is inputting into that process. In that context, they have made a number of additional suggestions for potential future legislative change in this area, including the power to compel passwords. The Department is considering all issues raised by An Garda Síochána in relation to these matters, and their input is being taken into account in the formulation of policy.”
The Council of Europe convention specifically refers to the investigation of child abuse imagery and computer fraud.
It provides for a range of investigative powers: expedited preservation of stored computer data; partial disclosure of traffic data; production orders compelling individuals or service providers to provide subscriber (name and address) information; search and seizure of stored computer data; real-time collection of computer data and “interception of content data”, including compelling a service provider to cooperate in the collection and recording of data.
Outside of investigating online child abuse imagery, gardaí fighting organised crime have raised the need to compel passwords and get into encrypted technology.
The Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau said encrypted phones — such as PGP Blackberry phones — are increasingly used by gangs, such as the Kinahan crime cartel, to direct drug trafficking, money laundering, shootings and murders.