State’s surveillance laws require ‘thorough modernisation’

Data Protection Commissioner warns companies over use of private investigators who track vehicles

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times


The State’s surveillance and communications interception laws require “a thorough modernisation” to ensure state-of-the-art powers for intelligence agencies, but also to ensure the rights of individuals are adequately protected, the Data Protection Commissioner has said.

Publishing her annual report for 2016 on Tuesday, Helen Dixon said an update was required, in particular, to ensure independent oversight of how the far-reaching powers given to intelligence agencies were deployed.

She noted that in the middle of 2016, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald had signalled that the law on investigatory powers in relation to electronic communications would be reviewed.

“The DPC would welcome an early output of this process,” Ms Dixon said.

The 2006 EU data retention directive requiring phone and internet communications records to be kept for up to two years by service providers was struck down by the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2014.

The case was taken by the privacy campaign group Digital Rights Ireland (DRI).

Domestic legislation on the retention of phone and internet data remains in place, however. DRI is taking a case in the Irish courts seeking to have the domestic laws struck down.

Last year, the DPC carried out audits on An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Defence Forces to examine their requests for access to people’s phone and internet data.

After examining “several hundred” requests, the commissioner concluded that strict assessment criteria were used by each State agency for a request sent to a communications service provider. The office found there were “no data protection issues of concern” arising from the audits.

Almost two thirds of the requests from gardaí to phone and internet companies were for subscriber data. There were also a “significant” number of requests relating to the prevention of the loss of human life, some of which entailed ‘pinging’ a mobile number – a type of call trace used in missing persons cases.

Separately, the office expressed concern about the use of vehicle tracking devices by some private investigators.

During 2016, the office’s special investigations unit contacted almost 400 companies or organisations that it knew to be users or potential future users of private investigators.

“We recommended that they write to all private investigators on their panels to, among other things, put them on notice that the use of vehicle-tracking devices should not occur without the consent of the vehicle owner concerned.”