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“If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.” August 3, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Ethics, Greens, Ireland, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Judiciary, Progressive Democrats, Sinn Féin, Technology.

The conviction of Joe O’Reilly for the murder of his wife led to an uncharacteristic lapse into idiocy by Fianna Fáil’s Pat Carey TD, now a Junior Minister with special responsibility for drugs. The use of mobile phone data was a crucial part of the Garda case in convicting O’Reilly, leading to Carey suggesting a national register of mobile phones and trotting out the tired old argument that:

“If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear. There may well be confidentiality or civil liberties issues but there are lives of people at stake as well, which I believe overrides any of those.”

I’ll come back to the stupidity of that statement in a moment, but worryingly the commitment to introducing a mandatory register of mobile phone users is in the Programme for Government:

“Require all mobile phones to be registered with name, address and proof of
identity in order to stop drug-pushers using untraceable, unregistered

It is, perhaps, a little ironic that this provision won the support of a Green Party that normally has a good record on civil liberties issues, but perhaps no surprise that the PDs want the state out of the economy, but are happy enough to see it gathering data on our mobile phone use.

The explanation for this proposal is that it will enable the Gardaí to track drug-dealers and criminals, by treating the entire population as suspected drug-dealers, providing them with intelligence about the movements of these dealers and potential evidence for constructing criminal cases against them. Or at least it would, if the Irish criminal element was composed entirely of idiots, something regrettably not the case.

A long-time friend of mine is a regular drinker in a south inner city pub. Other regular drinkers include numerous individuals who would fit the traditional Garda Press Office description of ‘being known to the Gardaí’. They habitually carry a number of mobile phone and, aware that they can be used to track them a long time before the Joe O’Reilly case (Some actually believe they can be used to electronically eavesdrop on conversations though I believe that’s mistaken), have an arrangement to leave their phones behind the counter with the barmen when they would prefer the Gardaí not to know where they are. The gents in question are not criminal masterminds, but local scumbags bright enough to know that taking risks about going to prison is a foolish thing to do and that a mobile is basically a tracking device you bought for yourself.

In short, members of Irish drugs gangs are not sending text messages to each other while waiting for customers or for their target of the night to show up.

But do we have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide?

Well, quite simply no. Digital Rights Ireland (Highly recommend supporting it) has a few articles here showing how common it is for the private information of citizens to be illegally leaked to private investigators or journalists. To steal a couple of quotes:

“NEARLY 50 serving Gardai have been interviewed as part of an internal inquiry into allegations that members of the force supplied confidential information to insurance companies to help them settle road traffic claims quickly.” (Sunday Tribune)

“Two years ago The Sunday Times revealed that at least 72 civil servants accessed the social welfare details of Dolores McNamara, the EuroMillions lottery winner. The department’s system logged over 125 hits on McNamara’s files after she scooped a E115m jackpot. Her social welfare details were subsequently published by a newspaper. (Sunday Times)

“CIVIL servants in the Department of Social and Family Affairs “routinely” leak welfare and employment records to private investigators employed by the insurance industry, an inquiry has concluded.” (Sunday Times. Inquiry carried out by Data Protection Commissioner.)

A few months ago it was necessary for work-related reasons for me to obtain a list of phone numbers I had called or texted. As I have a speakeasy phone, I don’t get an itemised bill but I was also aware that under the law, my mobile phone company is obliged to keep on file a list of every phone number I ring or rings me along with the duration of the call, and also a list of who texts me or whom I text for a period of three years. It also includes where I was when I made the calls or texts and where the people who contacted me are.

This information can be requested by the Gardaí without need for a warrant or judicial oversight or anything other than the signature of a senior Garda officer. They do not need to be investigating a crime to gain access to the call data. No information is given, due to security concerns, to the Oireachtas about how many such requests are made by the Gardaí but the Data Protection Commissioner has estimated a figure of ‘hundreds’ every month.

But when I contacted my mobile provider for information about calls made to and from my phone, I was told I was entitled only to the calls or texts I had made, not those I has received, and only for a period of three months. I had a brief argument with the customer care representative about the discrepancy between what I can find out about my own calls and what the Gardaí can find out but since the information I needed was included in what they were going to provide me I didn’t get too hung up on it.

The law as it stands allows the Gardaí to go on fishing expeditions and can have the effect of bringing people into contact with the Gardaí who would not otherwise be questioned. Three years ago a former co-worker of mine was questioned by the Gardaí about a serious crime. The reason was that the woman in question was a good friend of the wife of the chief suspect and consequently when the Gardaí investigated his mobile phone records they found a couple of calls to my former colleague. She had no information to give and the Gardaí were satisfied with that, assuring her they were questioning everyone on his phone records and she was not being singled out.

The result is that a woman who had never had any contact with the Gardaí before, other than to report crimes, is now listed in Garda computers as having been questioned in relation to a serious crime, and as an associate of a suspected criminal.

Obviously there is a need for the Gardaí to be able to access mobile phone information to solve crimes and to gather intelligence. But if the Gardaí need a warrant to search my house, why should they not require one to investigate my phone records? Why should information about my mobile phone use be available to them, but not to me? Why should the Oireachtas not be entitled to more information about how these laws are being used?

Why, according to the current Phoenix, are people who leak confidential information held by the state to private investigators or journalists given little more than a slap on the wrist? And why, despite all these problems, is a chap like Pat Carey wandering about calling for mandatory registration of mobile phones?

As pointed out when he made the suggestion, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources said in January of this year that such a register was a bad idea:

“The idea for a Register of mobile phones was extensively reviewed by officials in the Department. There were many complex legal, technical, data protection and practical issues to be considered. In theory, a Register of mobile phones might seem like a good idea.

“However, having looked at the situation in other administrations, considered the ease with which an unregistered foreign or stolen SIM card can be used and the difficulties that would be posed in verifying identity in the absence of a national identification card system, and having consulted with the Office of the Attorney General and other interested parties, it was concluded that the proposal would be of limited benefit, in that it would not solve the illegal and inappropriate use of pre-paid mobile phones and was not practical.”

Case closed? Well, obviously not since despite this statement being made in January, the objective still found its way into the Programme for Government. Furthermore, some of the problems listed above could be ‘solved’. Arguably, the fact that without a mandatory ID card system a mobile phone register wouldn’t work is not an argument against a mobile phone register, it can be seen in a certain light as an argument in favour of mandatory ID cards. Remember too that on crime, this is a Government that prefers the cherishs perception. Mandatory sentencing, ASBOs, bigger prisons are eye-catching in a way that tackling the causes of crime, working with local communities and drug rehabilitation are not. The latter however, are more likely to succeed on information from other adminstrations.

And so we return to a core problem in Irish society that I’ve raised before. The lack of a real civil liberties or human rights culture. Outside of the ICCL, hilariously described as having too much power recently in one of the worst posts I’ve ever seen on politics.ie, there is little interest in civil liberties issues and the political parties who could push the issue are reluctant.

Labour has a track record of supporting repressive legislation such as the Offences Against the State Act, Section 31 and Anti Social Behaviour Orders as part of the party’s move to the right and traditional support in protecting the state from ‘subversives’. The Shinners, and Aengus Ó Snodaigh in particular, are excellent on civil rights issues in Leinster House and in opposing McDowell’s criminal justice legislation, but the party’s support for the IRA’s campaign make it hard for many to accept Sinn Féin as defenders of human rights. The Greens have, of course, decided to go into government and administer the criminal justice and anti-civil liberties legislation they have previously opposed.

“If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.” So we end up back at the words of Pat Carey. For a country whose police force is a regular sight at the Tribunals and which already has repressive legislation on the books this is a pretty optimistic statement to make. With personal data being leaked by Gardaí and civil servants, it is downright ridiculous. I have nothing to hide, but with the Irish approach to data protection I certainly have something to fear.

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