Labour Party Concerns About Data Retention

It’s been some time coming, but we’re glad to see the Labour Party shares our concern about data retention:

The Labour Party Spokesperson on Justice, Deputy Brendan Howlin TD, has called for a review of the operation of powers given to the Gardai under the 2005 Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act to access personal telephone records, following information given to the Sunday Times by the Data Protection Commissioner that 10,000 such requests had been made by the Garda authorities during 2006.

This measure was added on as a last minute amendment to the Bill by the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, when it was going through the Dail in 2005 and was never properly debated by the House. While there was acceptance that such a power might be necessary to fight international terrorism or organised crime, I do not believe that any member of the Oireachtas envisaged that the power would be used so often. This amounts to almost 30 requests for every single day in 2006.

Given the extensive use by the Gardai of what should be an exceptional power, it is hard to disagree with the conclusion of the Assistant Data Protection Commissioner, that ‘perfectly innocent people are now having their private records pored over’.

I strongly believe in the light of these disclosures and the concerns expressed by the Data Commissioner’s Office that there is now a need to urgently review the operation of the powers and to establish if we need to strengthen the protection available to the public against potential abuses. The 2005 Act allows for the public to make a complaint to a ‘Complaints Referee’ but the fact is that a person has no way of knowing whether or not their records have been accessed by the Gardai in order to make a complaint. The Act also provides that the High Court Judge designated under the 1993 Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act to review the operation by the Gardai of telephone tapping would also review the new provisions in regard to requests for telephone records, but as far as I am aware no report has yet been published.

The Gardai are entitled to all reasonable powers to enable them to fight international terrorism and organised crime, but there have to be safeguards built in to ensure that these exceptional powers are not used except in the circumstances envisaged by the Oireachtas. The 10,000 requests lodged during 2006 that the balance intended by the Oireachtas has not been achieved.