Should we trust gardaí with access to our Facebook and WhatsApp accounts?

Security experts have raised concerns about proposals from the Department of Justice...

Should we trust gardaí with access to our Facebook and WhatsApp accounts?

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald is reported to have brought proposals to Cabinet today to grant gardaí new powers to access the electronic communications of suspected terrorists and individuals believed to be involved in organised crime.

The Irish Independent reports that these powers will be introduced by the end of this year and would extend to emails, WhatsApp messages, and Facebook communications.

"The law does not currently provide a clear legislative basis for the interception of these modern, internet-based forms of communication," a Government source told the newspaper.

Experts have expressed concerns regarding the technical details and potential for such powers to be abused.


"The short answer is - it's not going to work," TJ McIntyre, UCD law lecturer, and chairman of Digital Rights Ireland told Lunchtime.

He says that the Irish powers, as reported, would not be implementable to access user's messages:

"The problem is that those companies are headquartered in the US and have to comply with US laws for access to messages. So if you try to ask WhatsApp, for example, for copies of messages sent by me they will say to you - we will only give this out when a judge in the United States issues an order requiring this to be done," he told Newstalk.

In the post-Snowden world, tech companies have been investing in new encryption technologies, WhatsApp has introduced end-to-end encryption making messages impossible to access:

"If a message is genuinely end-to-end encrypted, the intermediary, such as WhatsApp, simply can't access (these messages), it doesn't have the technical capability to do it. Certainly, I am not confident from the reports that I'm hearing, that the Department of Justice is really taking these technical issues on board."

He adds that it appears that no safeguards are being introduced to protect against abuse of these powers:

"Think about a search warrant - search warrants are necessary. Before someone can come into your home and look through your stuff they have to have a warrant signed by an independent judge confirming that this is necessary. Surveillance of communication In Ireland isn't like that, surveillance of communication is based solely on the signature of a politician with no independent judicial consideration. We are saying that it should be subject to the same standard as a warrant."

He adds that loosely regulated surveillance powers could be used to "snoop" on anyone, including politicians, lawyers, and journalists. If these laws are changed, be believes that they will run into difficulty at a European level.

Ms Fitzgerald announced details of this plan in response to an escalation in gang violence - she said that she is conscious of the "very sensitive" balance between giving necessary powers to security authorities and protecting the rights of individuals.

Rory Byrne, who co-founded the app Security First and specialises in online security, told Newstalk that these new powers should not be handed over lightly:

"The proposal from the Minister looks considerably like an effort to be seen to be 'doing something' on the issue of gangland crime. Ireland has one of the weakest protections for civil liberties and oversight on surveillance issues in the EU.

"Any new initiative is worrying, especially in light of recent scandals involving allegations of gardai abusing the information collected on internal systems," he adds, referring to former Minister Alan Shatter's comments that Pulse was used "as a social website" to search for "gossip."

Newstalk has requested comment from a number of tech companies on the implementation of these proposed additional surveillance powers.