Almost 62,000 applications for access to landline, mobile phone and internet data were made to companies providing services to the Irish public by State authorities in a five-year period.
An Garda Síochána made almost all of the requests, security sources have told The Irish Times.
The revelation is likely to move the controversy over the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) accessing three journalists’ phone records to a wider debate about the use by the Garda of its powers to spy on the public.
The Garda and GSOC have both refused to release information revealing how many times they have accessed phone and internet records, using powers that mean they do not require judicial consent. The applications were made in the course of investigations by the force.
The information received for the five-year period to the end of 2012 has been made available by the Irish authorities to the European Commission. Between 2008 and 2012 the number of applications for data reached 61,823; a rate of more than 1,000 a month. Of those, 98.7 per cent were granted.
The figures for 2012 saw the lowest number of requests made during the five-year period, at 8,829. This compares to a high of 14,928 in 2010.
Security sources said the reduction in requests may be related to the introduction of data retention legislation. From 2012, it allowed the State’s law enforcement agencies to access historical stored data, meaning more information could be accessed in single requests.
In 2012, half of the requests made by the Garda and other agencies such as GSOC, Defence Forces and Revenue Commissioners related to mobile phone records. The remaining applications for data were split roughly evenly between landlines and internet services.
Meanwhile, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald insisted she had not authorised the tapping of journalists’ telephone calls.
As she announced a review of the legislation allowing organisations to access phone records of reporters, Ms Fitzgerald said she had no prior knowledge of GSOC availing of these powers.
The Minister said GSOC was an independent body and she had no “direct information” about the cases highlighted.
Ms Fitzgerald said: “I don’t have access to the details of that. We have the public record of what the journalists themselves have said.”
The Minister has appointed former chief justice Mr Justice John Murray to conduct a review of the legislation allowing access to the phone records of journalists.
Mr Justice Murray has three months to report back to the Minister and propose any legislative change required.
He has been asked to examine legislation in other countries and examine best international practice in this area.
Under the Communications (Data Retention) Act 2011 GSOC, An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Defence Forces can monitor civilian phones with only internal approval required.