Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thoughts on the new Surveillance Bill

I've a piece in today's Sunday Business Post on the Department of Justice's new Surveillance Bill. For some reason it's not online, so here's the full text:
Operation Observation Comes to Ireland

This week the Department of Justice published a Surveillance Bill which, if enacted, will allow Gardaí to break into private property to place covert video cameras and audio bugs, to plant tracking devices on cars and to use evidence gathered in this way in criminal prosecutions. The Bill – which was already on the legislative programme but was rushed forward after the murders in Limerick of Shane Geoghegan and Roy Collins – is intended to place existing Garda practices on a statutory basis in line with Ireland’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Currently, 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 generally have to obtain permission from a District Court judge before this type of surveillance can be carried out (except for tracking devices and urgent cases, where internal permission will suffice) 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 number of high profile and tragic killings 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, most notably 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 in 1998 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 3 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 retrospective approval and/or permission to continue the surveillance. There must also be a question mark over the proposal to allow the use of tracking devices on vehicles – for up to four months – without any judicial approval.

Also, 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 – the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill 2009 – it seems to be intended to deal with one narrow form of surveillance: covert surveillance by devices which are physically planted in certain locations. Many other forms of surveillance – such as the use of long lenses to observe 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. It is likely that there will be criminal cases in the future which fail as a result.

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. That law was designed with voice telephony and faxes in mind but due to technological changes no longer adequately protects email and other internet communications. For example, the law does not cover interception of internet telephone calls using services such as Skype, nor does it protect users of webmail services such as Gmail or Hotmail. In addition, Irish law currently protects messages only as they are “being transmitted”, making it likely that the stored contents of a person’s inbox would not be protected.

This ad hoc legislative framework also suffers from weak oversight mechanisms. Although the legislation provides for a designated judge to oversee interception, data retention and now covert surveillance, the annual reports of that judge have consisted of no more than a single page stating that the operation of the law has been kept under review and its provisions are being complied with. Compared with the UK system, for example, Irish law has little public accountability in relation to matters such as the volume of surveillance being carried out; whether individual files are reviewed to ensure correct procedures were followed; or whether mistakes were made such as the targeting of the wrong individual or number and what steps were taken to safeguard against such mistakes in future.

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.

TJ McIntyre is a solicitor, Lecturer in Law in UCD and Chairman of Digital Rights Ireland
Edited to add: It's now available here.

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