'Alarm sounded' on Russian threat to Ireland

'Alarm sounded' on Russian threat to Ireland

Mr Justice Meenan said there was an urgent need to update legislation to allow Gardaí and the Defence Forces to access encrypted communications to combat organised crime gangs and to protect State security. Picture: Courtpix

The latest oversight report on Ireland's spying laws has “sounded the alarm” on the scale of the threat posed by Russian intelligence services to Ireland.

Professor Edward Burke made the comment following the report of High Court judge Charles Meenan, who supervises the interception of phone calls and post, and access to traffic data on private communications.

Digital rights expert TJ McIntyre said the report highlighted the "inadequate" nature of surveillance oversight in Ireland.

Mr Justice Meenan’s report said the Russian invasion of Ukraine has “considerably increased the level of danger and threat to the security of the State”.

His four-page report did not provide details, but the judge said he conducted a “close examination” of files on interceptions of communications by Gardaí and the Defence Forces during visits he conducted on one day last month.

In line with previous reports, all of which are only a few pages long, the report does not provide any statistical information on applications and warrants for interception or any breakdown by agency or nature of threat.

The report covers the year ending the 27 June 2022 and is submitted to the Taoiseach.

The judge said there are “very serious threats” to the State from people and groups both based inside the country and outside.

“These threats have increased in the past year,” he said.

Mr Justice Meenan said there was an urgent need to update legislation to allow Gardaí and the Defence Forces to access encrypted communications to combat organised crime gangs and to protect State security.

He said failure to modernise these laws – which date to 1993 – “will inevitably have serious consequences” for the security of the State and the prevention and investigation of serious crime.

In addition, he said legal issues arising out of the European Court of Justice ruling in the Graham Dwyer case – that general retention and accessing of communication data for the investigation of serious crime breached EU laws – had to be addressed.

Associate Professor in International Relations at Nottingham University, Edward Burke, said Mr Justice Meenan was given access to sensitive intelligence that “clearly indicates an escalating threat to Irish national security, especially from Russian intelligence”.

He said: “We have seen what Russia is capable of, including murdering EU citizens and residents, launching large scale cyber attacks to cripple public infrastructure and stealing sensitive intellectual property and private data.” 

 He said Ireland was an EU and global technology and communications hub and added: “Russia is attempting to take advantage of our weak legislation and paucity of counter-intelligence resources to target the EU and NATO. Ireland too has made it known that it is not neutral when it comes to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.” 

 He said: “Mr Justice Meenan has usefully given legislators and the public an indication of the scale of the threat. He has sounded the alarm. It is now up to the government to act and to act quickly.” Associate Professor at UCD Law School TJ McIntyre, who is also chair of Digital Rights Ireland, said the report showed why Irish oversight of surveillance was inadequate.

“The European Court of Justice has found mass storage of everyone's telephone and internet records to be illegal, but the judge completely fails to acknowledge that, let alone say that this should stop," he said.

“Instead, the judge is making recommendations for even more surveillance, despite having no technical expertise, without speaking to experts in the area."

Donncha O’Connell, Professor of Law at NUI Galway and former member of Policing Commission, said problems with the current oversight system “should be noted” by the Government as it prepares its proposals on the establishment of the office of Independent Examiner of Security Legislation.

As well as revamping and resourcing Garda intelligence structures, and the establishment of a national intelligence analysis centre in the Department of the Taoiseach, the Policing Commission also recommended the creation of an Independent Examiner, to conduct “comprehensive and robust review” of terrorist and serious crime laws.

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