Google offered to provide cyber training for Irish judges

Records show sustained lobbying by tech giants ahead of new digital interception laws

Google’s Dublin HQ. Photograph: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

Google’s Dublin HQ. Photograph: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

 

Google offered cybercrime training for the judiciary ahead of the introduction of new digital interception legislation, according to records of lobbying by technology companies.

The search engine giant has expressed concern – along with other major tech firms – about aspects of the new law, and has argued that judges should have the final say on allowing interceptions to combat crime or terrorism.

Notes of a meeting between Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Google in July 2016 show that Google representatives “outlined a scheme of training support offed [sic] by Google to prosecutors and judges in some other. . . states in order to support their work in dealing with cases involving technology/cybercrime etc. and offered to provide support in Ireland”.

The Tánaiste, who was at the time also the minister for justice, initially “welcomed” the suggestion, according to the official notes but this was promptly followed by an observation from department assistant secretary Peter Mullan that “judges and prosecutors are independent” in the Irish legal system.

Mr Mullan was also present at a meeting attended by the same Google representatives in April 2017 in which it was suggested that judicial authorisation of messages retrieved under the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) (Amendment) Bill would “add to the transparency and oversight of the legislation”.

A source close to the search-engine giant indicated to The Irish Times that any judicial training would be administered by a body independent of Google but would be given training and technical support by the company.

Responding to a query from The Irish Times, a spokesman for the Department of Justice said consultation regarding the proposed legislation was ongoing, and reiterated that “the judiciary is independent in the performance of its functions . . . and judicial training is primarily a matter for the judiciary”.

A spokeswoman for Google said it would not be commenting on the meetings.

The Bill, which will allow gardaí to intercept texts, emails and social media messages of criminal suspects, was granted Cabinet approval in July of last year, but progress since then has been slow.

Sustained lobbying

The Government has been subject to a sustained lobbying campaign from tech multinationals over the proposals, and Google has discussed matters such as data privacy and cybercrime with Ministers including Paschal Donohoe, Denis Naughten and Frances Fitzgerald on seven occasions over the past two years.

The Irish Times also attempted to obtain notes of meetings held between tech companies and the Department of Communications between January and July of this year, but was informed that the records could not be located.

In the summer of 2016, the Tánaiste addressed an assembly of tech industry representatives at Farmleigh House in Dublin, during which it was queried whether the State would bear the cost of any new digital surveillance regime that might affect software companies.

Unnamed delegates proposed that citizens should be notified where their information has been intercepted by gardaí as part of a system similar to that which currently operates in Sweden.

It was noted that facilitating access to encrypted user data would necessitate the amendment of customer contracts, thereby creating “a commercial disadvantage for providers located in the State vis-a-vis other jurisdictions”.

Representatives also complained that the cost of implementing technical aspects of the new laws would act as a barrier to smaller companies entering the market, and as such could potentially conflict with competition legislation.

The Tánaiste also heard concerns about the possibility of companies finding that they have been accidentally operating unlawfully due to poorly-drafted legislation, and there were calls for the Bill once published to pertain strictly to serious crime or threats to the security of the State.

It was further proposed that a technical working group be established for implementing the legislation, although the possible membership or remit of this group was not elaborated on.

In a meeting with the Department of Justice on December 1st, Facebook vice-president Chris Sonderby described a system of independent oversight for the legislation as a “necessity”.

User notice of intercepted material was again brought up in the April 2017 gathering, at which departmental officials said they were targeting publication of the as-yet unpublished amendments prior to the Dáil rising for the summer.

Overall, tech companies appeared supportive of the new surveillance measures being proposed by the Government over the course of the meetings.

Digital rights and privacy activists have previously derided the changes as “doomed to failure”.