There was “no reason to believe” that journalists are singled out for communication data requests by the gardaí or the Garda ombudsman, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has said.
However, she declined to comment on how many requests had been made involving journalists saying it was an operational question for gardaí.
Speaking at the launch of a domestic violence strategy, Ms Fitzgerald said there was “no widespread snooping on private individuals” and that the roughly 8,000 requests per year was “relatively low internationally”.
Also questioned briefly at the event, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan said requests for phone and internet records operated under “very robust standards” and rejected comments that too many resources were being deployed investigating journalists.
Ms Fitzgerald, who announced an independent review of the area on Tuesday, said it was very important to get the balance right, between the protection of journalistic sources and the investigation of crime.
“Let’s be very clear there is no widespread snooping on private individuals, private citizens,” she said.
She said the Communications (Data Retention) Act 2011 empowered the gardaí to seek phone logs and records if they were investigating serious crime, national security, or a threat to someone’s life. The powers are also available to the Garda Ombudsman, the Defence Forces, and the Revenue Commissioners.
Department of Justice figures show there were 5,865 requests for landline and mobile phone data in 2014. Some 5,513 (94%) were made by gardaí, 246 by the Defence Forces, 91 by GSOC, and 15 by Revenue.
Historical figures show almost 62,000 requests for phone and internet data were made for the five years to 2012. Ms Fitzgerald said that looking at phone data alone there were on average about 8,000 requests by gardaí every year.
“That is not out of line,” she said. “For example in the UK you have 725,000 requests from their police there, so in terms of percentages in Ireland it is relatively low internationally.”
She said the review, conducted by retired chief justice John Murray, will “examine whether further safeguards are needed in relation to access to journalists’ phones”.
She said during Dáil debates some members were “very concerned about Garda leaks” because of their impact on victims. Asked how many data requests had been made involving journalists, she said: “There is no reason to believe that journalists are in any way selected out for particular attention.”
Pressed on the numbers, she said it was an “operational question” for the gardaí.
Commissioner O’Sullivan said gardaí operated “very robust safeguards” for data requests. Asked were too many resources going into investigating Garda leaks, she said: “I have certainly seen over recent days some suggestions that are there more resources being put into investigating leaks. That is simply untrue. There is no foundation for those comments.”
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