Irish government to ask for communications interception powers

Ireland may soon be getting something very similar to the UK's Investigatory Powers bill if deputy prime minister Frances Fitzgerald's expected recommendations are made.

Interception powers seem to be very popular among western governments, less popular among their citizens
Interception powers seem to be very popular among western governments, less popular among their citizens

Ireland's deputy prime minister, Frances Fitzgerald, is expected to propose new powers to intercept communications today.

Fitzgerald, who is both the justice minister and the deputy prime minister, wants to grant Irish police new powers to intercept the emails and social media correspondence of criminals and members of organised crime groups.

The new powers will involve expanding two laws to bring private electronic communication within their remit.

The interception of private correspondence has been widely employed by traditionally liberal western governments in the past few years.

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, revealed in 2013 that western governments were widely employing the practice by collecting information on their citizens' communications. While the practice was already on shaky legal grounds, security services and governments have pleaded that they require such powers to properly deal with the threat of international terrorism. Since then, governments have tried to attain legitimacy for these practices by putting them into formal law.

One such example is the the Investigatory Powers (IP) bill, which currently sits in the UK parliament awaiting approval. Sometimes known as the Snooper's Charter, the bill would give security services powers similar to those being asked for today by Fitzgerald.

Such measures are often met with outrage from pressure groups and civil liberty-minded politicians. The IP bill itself has been stalled several times due to public pressure.

A source within the Ireland Department of Justice told The Irish Times that the minister was aware of the need to weigh security concerns with basic freedoms and the right to privacy.

Dr Richard Tynan, technologist at Privacy International, told SCMagazineUK.com that while measures to tackle organised crime are most welcome, emulating the British model of surveillance is a worrying development.

“The statements indicate that the government intends to follow the British model of surveillance where Irish companies can be compelled to betray their users,” said Tynan.

“The statements today mask a subtlety of surveillance; namely that the government doesn't just want to intercept and collect the communications, but they want to be able to read and understand them. And to achieve this, they want to enlist companies to do this.”

From a technical point of view, it is certainly conceivable how a policing or intelligence service might be able to access private email or Facebook accounts. The question of encrypted private messaging is less clear.

Even if companies agree in principle to open up their users' private correspondence to government scrutiny, the question remains whether they will actually be able to. Apps like the immensely popular WhatsApp employ end-to-end encryption, meaning that not even those who run the app can look at private messages.

The same kind of encryption is used by PGP and Apple's iMessage and was adopted by WhatsApp in April this year.

At the time, Richard Anstey, EMEA CTO at Intralinks, lauded the move, telling SC, “End-to-end encryption is already posing a problem for intelligence agencies who are pushing for ‘backdoors' to decrypt messages between terrorists, some of which may be exchanged on WhatsApp.”

Tynan added that the measures made to deal with such services can also become problematic: “We have seen governments block access to services such as WhatsApp and even ordering the jailing

of officials from the company because the system is built to be safe from this kind of attack by governments, criminals, or hackers.” 

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