I posted quickly about the phone tapping bill which appeared in the Seanad through the medium of Irish.
Mr. McDowell may as well have introduced it through the medium of modern dance, given the general populous’ (and who knows maybe even Senators) ability to decrypt legislation at the best of times.
However the stunt may have backfired a little. The newspapers and radio journalists were piqued that something might be happening behind their backs and right in front of them. So we’ve had a spate of reports in the political columns regarding the potential infringements of human rights this bill might represent.
Here’s my personal opinion; journalists missed the boat on this topic. This bill is an extension to the current phone tapping legislation, passed in 1993 in response to the phone tapping scandals of 1983. (The wheels of Justice grind exceedingly slow sometimes.) That legislation is flawed. There are areas where it ought to be tightened up. There is no judicial oversight in advance of taps being placed. The system was brought in to remedy an abuse of power by the then Minister for Justice. The legislation leaves the Minister for Justice responsible for authorising phone taps. There is a judge appointed to look over all the phone taps annually and make a report on same. However, in the absence of any guidance as to what this report should contain to make it meaningful, that report has been a single identical line every year.
“Since my appointment I have kept the operation of the Act under review and I am satisfied that the provisions have been complied with. ”
(See TJ McIntyre at 57mins in to this video of Digital Rights Ireland’s recent talk for more)
So, extending this Act to allow phone taps to be put on Irish lines at the request of foreign authorities is something that ought to be examined. And there are legitimate questions to be asked. What happens when the definition of ‘serious crime’ in our country is not the same as that of the country who is requesting that we act on their behalf? Who will keep the EU-wide list of all competent authorities to request these phone taps up to date for the telecommunications companies to refer to? And so on.
Despite all this, I have to contrast the response to an extension of an Act which has been in existence for nigh on 12 years to the deafening silence in the mainstream news pages regarding the Data Retention issue as it was travelling through the European system.
This was the assertion of an entirely new power of the state- the right of the state to know the location of all its citizens running back years and who they had met, spoken to or communicated with. We can see the same right being asserted in the UK at the launch of the Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems, and being implemented, by stealth, here as well.
Data Retention passed with only the denizens of the ghettos of the technology pages crying out. ANPR seems to be only attracting the attention of transport and motoring specialists. No articles by the political editor on the potential political price of such a daring attack on the previously understood meaning of privacy. No lengthy interviews on the radio asking whether people would put up with such intrusion.
Sorry journalists. This phone tapping bill, for all its flaws, is a minnow. You let the whale swim by.