Interpol garda defends use of personal data to fight crime

Comments come as State begins review of Gsoc access to journalists’ phone records

Powers that allow access to mobile phone and internet data are essential in the fight against crime a Garda member working for Interpol has said.

Det Sgt Mick Moran, who facilitates the supply of intelligence and evidence between international law enforcement agencies, said phones and the internet were used in the commission of all crime types; "from a robbery down the road to a multimillion dollar hack and fraud" as well distributing images of child abuse.

He said in those countries where internet and telephone service providers were not required to retain data, criminals had a distinct advantage.

“When we send hundreds and hundreds of leads to these countries every month, none of them have been further investigated,” he said.


“The leads are going straight into the bin. There is zero second step [investigation] for any form of cybercrime because there is zero data retention.”

Det Sgt Moran has been seconded to Interpol for almost a decade. He is now assistant director of the specialist unit fighting online child exploitation and crimes against vulnerable communities.

His comments on data retention, while related to Europe as a whole rather than Ireland, come as a Government-ordered review is beginning into how the Garda Síochána Ombudsman (Gsoc) and other investigative agencies accessed journalists' telephone records.

Advocacy group Digital Rights Ireland is also taking a court challenge to the mass retention of data by companies providing phone and internet services to the Irish market.

Det Sgt Moran said he understood why people were concerned about their data.

Human right

“Privacy is a basic human right after all,” he said from his base in Lyon,


. “But you’ve a basic human right to be in your house as well. And if I go to a judge and I convince the judge it’s reasonable and appropriate to search your house, he will give me a warrant. What makes computer data and call data any different?”

He said the most commonly requested information was metadata. This includes the identity of the sender and recipients of calls, texts and emails as well as the times and locations those communications took place. As none of the content of the messages is being sought, privacy is less of an issue and the permission of a court is normally not required.

However, when law enforcement agencies seek copies of texts and emails, the public has a higher expectation of privacy. Therefore a court order or warrant is required.

In most European countries, a ministerial order is required to secure live access to phone and internet services.

Det Sgt Moran said the level of permissions needed increased as the information being sought became more substantial and sensitive.

While “getting the balance right” would always provoke debate, he said, arguing about whether police forces should have access to data at all was ridiculous.

Everyday lives

“Mobile phones and [information communication technologies] form part of our everyday lives,” he said. “And if the police want to look into our everyday lives – either if you are a victim or the accused – well then the phone mobile is going to play a part in that.

“I don’t see any problem with that. We have provisions in law that say anything that could attract a jail term of up to five years is a serious crime.

“Don’t be surprised that there are thousands of applications, the numbers don’t matter. The reality is the number of applications [made for data in individual countries] is going to reflect the level of serious crime there.”

The review into how journalists' phone records have been accessed was ordered by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald. It came in the wake of a controversy earlier this month that began when The Irish Times revealed Gsoc had accessed journalists' phone records during the course of its inquiries into Garda members over alleged leaks to the media.

It has emerged that up to 14,900 requests for telephone and internet records have been made annually in recent years, with the Garda making almost all of the applications.

Gsoc, the Garda, Defence Forces and Revenue Commissioners can access the records of persons of interest without the need to secure a judicial order or warrant.

Instead, senior officers in those organisations can grant their junior colleagues permission to request data from service providers. The operators are not compelled to provide any information, but usually surrender what is requested.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times