Concern over sharp rise in Garda surveillance activities

Privacy group says Ireland falling short as use of listening and tracking devices jumps

There has been a large rise in Garda surveillance activities in the last year. Photograph: The Irish Times

There has been a large rise in Garda surveillance activities in the last year. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Privacy groups have expressed concern about a large rise in surveillance activities by gardaí in the last year.

There has been a 150 per cent rise in the use of listening and vehicle tracking devices by gardaí since 2015. It understood much of this relates to intensive Garda operations targeting the Kinahan and Hutch crime gangs whose feud has claimed eleven lives so far.

Gardaí are believed to have invested heavily in surveillance equipment and training over the last 18 months, particularly for members of the National Surveillance Unit.

Under the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 the use of such devices requires the permission of a District Court judge. However, in emergency situations gardaí can rely on temporary permission from a senior officer.

The use of this emergency provision, which circumvents the court, has also increased in recent years from once in 2014 to five last year.

According to the latest report from Mr Justice Brian McGovern there were 129 intrusive surveillance operations between 2015 and July 2016. This compares to 51 from the proceeding 12 month period.

This use of vehicle tracking devices increased substantially from 12 to 83.

The vast majority of operations were carried out by gardaí. Revenue officials used tracking devices on 26 occasions and military intelligence used a bugging device once.

The regime governing the use of listening and tracking devices is separate from the legislation governing live phone-tapping operations, although both are reviewed annually by a judge.

Antoin O Lachtnain of Digital Rights Ireland said the rise is concerning because Ireland is not in line with international best practice when it comes to surveillance oversight.

“Citizens should feel assured that their phones and computers won’t be interfered with except for a good, lawful reason. Irish law does not provide them with the protection they should expect. It falls way short of international best practice,” he said.

“Supervision is always after the fact, and is carried out by a single judge with no staff, no special expertise and no resources.”

The Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) wants to see a parliamentary oversight committee replacing the role of a High Court judge.

“It’s concerning that the use of surveillance without judicial oversight is increasing.”

But even with judicial oversight, the level of oversight is widely viewed as being inefficient,” he said.

“This is likely to become a great problem as time goes on. We can anticipate as technology develops that new and more invasive systems of surveillance are going to be available to police.”