88% do not know of Irish “digital dossiers”

88% do not know of Irish “digital dossiers”
March 07, 2008

Polllogo The government is tracking and storage phone calls and movements of people vie mobile phones, there are also plans to record internet commutations, but few students at BCFE appear to know of the current and planned data retention by the State.

Only 12 percent of students correctly identified Ireland as the county that – without court warrant – keeps records of phone calls and tracks movements vie mobile phones of anybody and everybody.

Students were asked, “Which of these countries – without warrant – keeps records of its citizens’ phone calls, tracks movements vie mobile phones, and is planning to track emails and instant messages?” and given a choice of four counties: the United States, Ireland, China, and Canada.

Of the 100 students polled on a range of political issues, a majority – 55 percent – said the United States, 27 percent said China, and 12 percent correctly answered Ireland. Just three percent said Canada.

The large percentage which chose the United States is understandable considering security restrictions put into place since the September 11 attack on New York, while China is well known for censoring media that its citizens receive. But the survey shows a lack of understanding of the blanket surveillance over across the Irish population.

Civil rights, and business groups hit out at blanket surveillance

Irish internet service providers and a civil rights group say planned blanket internet surveillance will be a waste of money and is unlikely to catch serous criminals, or terrorists. Strict take-up of the directive here could also harm Ireland Inc.

Data retention measures currently include the logging and storing of phone calls and text messages, and location details from mobile phones for up to 18 months, but under an EU directive it is to expand to the inclusion of emails and other internet commutation for up to two years. As with the current measure the Garda and the Defence Forces will be able to access the data without a court order or warrant.

The Department of Justice told this newspaper that the data retention is needed to tactical crime and for the security of the State, a spokesman from the Department said the measures were needed for: “the prevention, detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime and for the safeguarding of the security of the State”.

However, the association of internet service providers in Ireland points out that those wanting to cover their digital footprints are unlikely to be caught. Internet Protocol (IP) addresses – a method of identifying internet users – can be blocked, manipulated, or are often only temporarily assigned on a ‘session’ bases.

“The very people that you want to capture in this know exactly what they need to do to make sure what tracks they leave – if they leave tracks at all – that those tracks are totally unreadable. In other words, the people who seriously want to know how to bypass these methods are the ones who can do so,” said Paul Durrant, general manager of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland. “The European ISP association has always questioned the true effectiveness of data retention to tackle serious crime and terrorism for which it was it was brought in.”

The Department of Justice also claimed data retention constitutes a responsible and legitimate balancing of privacy and the need to protect people from crime and terrorism. But that was described as “nonsense” by Digital Rights Ireland (DRI), a group set up to protect civil rights in a digital age.

“A system whereby everyone – judge, jurist or jailbird alike – has their communications and movements logged automatically, without any requirement for a warrant or any prior suspicion, cannot possibly be proportionate,” said TJ McIntyre, chairman of DRI and a lecturer in Law in UCD. McIntyre describes the current and expanding retention laws as a creation of “digital dossiers” of every person in the country.

“This means that the telecommunications and movements of every person in the state must be tracked and logged by the telecommunication firms and kept for three years. Even Orwell didn’t dream of surveillance this intrusive.”

On the other hand, Durrant says that the move to retain internet data could be ineffective even when users do not use techniques to cover their digital trail.

“The directive says to store the source address and the destination. It’s very simple with telephony, you’ve got you’re telephone number and my telephone number, but on the internet that can be totally meaningless. You have the person residing on your network, but you have no idea who the customer is at the far end”.

The two groups also repetitively speak of their concerns that the law will be used in the cases of minor crimes and for so-called “fishing expeditions”, where wide net is cast for large amounts of date with the hope of finding significant information.

McIntyre says, “The Data Protection Commissioner has revealed that there were approximately 10,000 requests for this information last year. This is not the sign of legislation being used sparingly and proportionately”.

ISPs will have to foot the bill to log and store the extra data about their customers’ commutations – it’s information that would normally fall fowl of data protection and privacy laws as it is of no use to them in their day-to-day business.

“It has been made quite clear to us that data retention is not being funded by the government, it is a business cost to us. ISPs and telecom companies are commercial organisations and therefore we have to pass this cost on to the consumer,” explains Durrant.

He warns that Ireland could be placed at a disadvantage: “It’s a very real threat to Ireland Inc to the large international ISP-based businesses…. I don’t want to start being alarmist but it is a reality that the government needs to think long and carefully about”.

- Cian Ginty

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