Gardaí to get 'electronic key' to intercept criminal gangs' encrypted messages

Laws are being drafted to give State agencies legal powers to intercept encrypted communications.

Laws are being drafted to give State agencies legal powers to intercept encrypted communications.

The Department of Justice told the Irish Examiner that the proposals “are being prepared” for the Minister for Justice and the Government.

Gardaí have been calling for powers to intercept and access encrypted devices in recent years. And in July 2019 a top judge told the Government that agencies reported that the current laws were “considerably out of date”.

On Thursday, details emerged of a spying operation by a joint French-Dutch police team which breached encrypted phones, on the

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The team was able to monitor in real-time, millions of messages between criminals as they organised assassinations, drug and firearms shipments and money laundering.

Analysis of the colossal amount of information was conducted by the EU police agency Europol.

Europol said the dismantling of the network had sent “shockwaves through organised crime across Europe”.

Gardaí have said Irish crime gangs, including the Kinahan cartel, regularly use encrypted phones, at a cost of €1,500 each, to order assassinations and import drugs and firearms.

Last February, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris called for an

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In his report a year ago, Mr Justice Charles Meenan, who supervises the use of the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages Act 1993, said officers that the act was “considerably out of date having regard to technical developments that have taken place since”.

While he didn't specify the problems, security sources have said the antiquated laws were not flexible enough to cover interception of encrypted communications or social media messaging.

In a statement, the Department of Justice said: “The ability to lawfully intercept communications is an important tool in combatting serious crime and protecting the security of the State.

“In recent years, there have been significant technological advancements in the area of communications, including the encryption of data, which have necessitated new and more innovative approaches to law enforcement responses particularly in the area of evidence gathering.”

It said the issue remained a priority at EU-level and will be a focus of discussions over the coming months and that the Department will continue to engage in these discussions.

“As highlighted in the Report of the Designated Judge it is essential that our domestic legislation (Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993) keeps pace with technological developments.

“Legislative proposals, with a view to modernising the current legal framework, are being prepared by the Department for the consideration of the Minister and the Government.”

Garda sources have previously said that as well as modern laws, security services need the technical ability, in terms of equipment and trained staff, to try and breach encryption.

The issue of greater garda powers to access encrypted devices was raised by the Garda Inspectorate in 2018 in a review of Garda investigations of child sex abuse.

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