Tracking devices are putting a sting in tails of smugglers

Hidden tracking devices have led to at least six substantial cigarette smuggling stings since the law permitting covert surveillance by customs officers was introduced.

Spying technology has become increasingly important for the Revenue Commissioners. However, the independent overseer of its activity said the expensive practice was predominantly deployed only where high-value crimes were suspected.

Over 35m illegal cigarettes, worth in the region of €13m, were uncovered in the first two years of the new surveillance law.

The equipment has also been used to follow imports of the chemicals used to launder diesel, the smuggling of drugs into the country and efforts to bring in large quantities of alcohol without paying excise duty.

Despite having the ability to secretly film suspects the Revenue Commissioners have yet to authorise an investigator to plant one.

The largest tracker-assisted swoop saw 9.5m cigarettes recovered and in two other cases more than 7m were found.

A smaller number of tracking investigations involved tax evasion rather than smuggling. There is an ongoing probe of Vat fraud where the beacons have been permitted to assist officials.

In a bid to follow smugglers, some devices were attached to goods or vehicles but they did not lead to seizures in this jurisdiction because the people being followed passed into the North before they could be stopped.

In another incident the criminals had fitted a jamming device, designed to drown out the signal from the surveillance beacons.

Exact figures on the frequency of snooping by Revenue are not available. In the first year of the new surveillance act, tracking devices were authorised but the amount of occasions only ran into “small double figures”.

On a small number of occasions, a Revenue official was permitted to sneak onto a person’s property to place or remove a device.

However, the evidence gleaned under the new act will now come under greater scrutiny as the DPP is reviewing a number of files where tracking devices helped build the case.

Mr Justice Kevin Feeney, who referees the operation of the 2009 surveillance law, said he reviewed the times when tracking devices were used by customs officers.

He said the quantities of goods under investigation justified the decision to spy on the individuals involved.

“The seizure of substantial quantities of goods in cases where tracking devices were approved is supportive of the conclusion that tracking devices are only approved where there are reasonable grounds for believing that surveillance is justified,” he said.

He also said the cost of using this equipment meant that the returns had to be large enough before money was spent.

“It was apparent from consideration of the documentation and records and from information provided to me that the cost and manpower involved in the use of tracking devices and in particular surveillance devices is such that they are targeted and limited to cases where there is already existing information,” Mr Justice Feeney said in the first of his two reviews.

The Revenue Commissioners said the relevant law had banned them from giving out any information on their surveillance activity or discussing the number of incidents where it had been permitted.

“The disclosure of any information in connection with the operation of the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 is legally prohibited, except in very limited specified circumstances outlined in that act,” said Revenue.

For more in this special investigation, click here.


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