Time to take a close look at surveillance

Last week the Cabinet approved the heads of a Surveillance Bill which, if enacted, will allow Gardaí to break into private property to place covert video cameras and audio bugs, and to use evidence gathered in that way in criminal prosecutions. The Bill – which was already on the legislative programme but was rushed forward after the murder in Limerick of Shane Geoghegan – is intended to place existing Garda practices on a statutory basis in line with Ireland’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

At the moment, due to the lack of statutory controls, material gathered in this way (such as transcripts of conversations) can be used for intelligence purposes but would not be admissible in criminal trials. The Bill aims to remedy this by providing that Gardaí will have to obtain authorisation from a District Court judge before this type of surveillance can be carried out (except in cases of exceptional urgency) and that a designated judge of the High Court will keep the overall operation of the system under review. In addition, these methods can only be used in respect of crimes carrying a possible sentence of at least five years imprisonment and where the surveillance is, in all the circumstances, proportionate.

The Bill promises to regularise the law in this area and to that extent must be welcomed. It is unfortunate, however, that it took a high profile and tragic murder before this was given priority. As far back as 1996 the Law Reform Commission in a Consultation Paper identified a need for reform and in a 1998 Report it recommended that there should be a legal basis for Garda surveillance of this type. Successive Ministers for Justice have, however, largely ignored this recommendation. (The most remarkable example being in 2006 when the Privacy Bill introduced by then Minister for Justice Michael McDowell targeted surveillance by the media – but entirely excluded Garda surveillance from its scope.) In light of over a decade of government inactivity, the Bill is long overdue.

The timing of the Bill aside, its provisions generally represent a substantial step forward. It has clearly been influenced by the constitutional guarantee of the inviolability of the dwelling and the safeguards which it provides are more robust than those recommended by the Law Reform Commission. It introduces for the first time in Irish law the principle that judicial approval should be required before surveillance is carried out. Unlike other forms of surveillance such as data retention – which currently can be used in respect of even the most minor crimes – the Bill is limited to genuinely serious offences and also introduces a requirement that the surveillance must be proportionate having regard to the impact on the rights of innocent third parties.

There are of course some aspects of the Bill which could be improved. For example, the procedure to deal with cases of exceptional urgency is too lax. Under the Bill as it stands those cases would bypass the judicial process entirely, so that surveillance could take place for up to 14 days without any authorisation. There must be a question mark as to whether this provision would be constitutional if it was used to break into and bug a dwelling. Instead, it would be preferable to deal with cases of urgency by permitting Gardaí to commence surveillance without a judicial authorisation but then requiring that an application be made to the District Court for permission to continue the surveillance.

However, while the Bill is generally good as far as it goes, there is a strong argument to be made that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Despite its broad title, it addresses only one very narrow area – the covert surveillance of locations by devices which are physically planted in those locations. Many other forms of surveillance – such as the use of GPS devices to track the position of cars, the use of long range cameras and microphones to monitor locations from a distance and live monitoring of internet activity – will still be entirely unregulated. As a result there will continue to be doubt as to whether Gardaí have the power to use these types of surveillance and as to whether the resulting evidence can be used in criminal prosecutions.

Meanwhile, although there is some legislation regulating other forms of surveillance such as the interception of communications, data retention and Garda use of CCTV, that legislation has developed on an ad hoc and reactive basis with few consistent principles applying to its use or oversight. Much of it is also out of date, most notably the 1993 interception of communications legislation which due to technological changes no longer adequately protects email and other internet communications.

Considered as a whole, therefore, the wider Irish law is inadequate. Given that many of these issues were flagged by the Law Reform Commission in 1998, it is hard to see any justification for the failure to address them to date. Although this Bill does provide for some improvements, it is at best a piecemeal response which will not address similar problems with other forms of surveillance. It is clear that the time has come for comprehensive reform of the overall law relating to surveillance. This Bill is a good first step towards that reform. But it is only a first step, and it would be regrettable if the government were to continue to ignore this area until forced to act by another highly visible crime.