Oversight of Garda access to data ‘a must’, says UN inspector

Countries like Ireland need to set up powerful oversight bodies to permit, and inspect, surveillance of individuals by security and police agencies, according to a UN inspector.

Oversight of Garda access to data ‘a must’, says UN inspector

Speaking in Dublin, Professor Joseph Cannataci said these bodies must be independent of the State, have “legal teeth”, be properly resourced and have the necessary technical expertise.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Privacy said that so-called metadata was at least as sensitive as content data and should also necessitate a warrant to be accessed.

Legal campaigners here, such as Digital Rights Ireland, have consistently criticised Irish governments for the lack of oversight bodies and the fact that access to communication metadata is not subject to a warrant.

Prof Cannataci spoke to the Irish Examiner before he addressed the seminar, ‘Government Surveillance Attitudes From a National and International Perspective’, which was organised by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

He said that surveillance was often necessary: “Surveillance is something which is sometimes required in a democratic society in order to protect citizens, protect security and protect the security of the State and to ensure the prevention, detection and investigation of crime and terrorism.”

But he added this rider: “That being said, I believe surveillance should be targeted and done in such a way that you go before the independent external authority, comprising at least one person of judicial standing, and get permission to carry out the surveillance.”

The UN inspector said that, in this system, the security or policing services can only get a warrant if they “prove reasonable suspicion” in relation to someone for suspected involvement in serious crime or terrorist activity.

If they can’t so demonstrate, they “should not be given permission to intrude on the privacy of someone”.

In Ireland, requests to plant audio-visual bugs require a judicial warrant, while requests to tap phones require the authorisation of the minister for justice, but access to communication data (such at telephone and online traffic data) is sought directly by gardaí and other agencies without a warrant.

He said communication data or metadata is “not any less sensitive than content data” and can “reveal a lot more about you”.

Prof Cannataci said this includes “information of all websites you have looked at, each click you have made, every swipe on your smartphone, every telephone call you made or received, the times of the calls, who the calls were made to”.

He added: “They will have a more intimate knowledge of you than access to some content data”.

Because of this, access to such data and the inspection of the use of such data by security and police services should be subject to powerful oversight, he said.

The rapporteur said oversight bodies need to be independent, with independent staff, be properly resourced and have “legal teeth”.

He said the bodies must have the necessary number of technical experts on their staff.

He said it was “more sensible and proportionate” for states to hire more intelligence officers to trail suspects, pointing out that in France there were 556 officers for 11,000 suspects.

He defended people’s entitlement to use encrypted communications such as WhatsApp, saying there was “no such thing as selective dilution of encryption”.

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