The level of public oversight on the Irish state's phone tapping and other intercept activities is a joke.
Tapping the wrong phone happens more often then you'd like to think if Britain is anything to go by. There were 50 errors there in 2008 among the .5m intercepts recorded in the report (see pg 11) of the UK's Interception of Communications Commissioner. That's up from 24 mistakes detected in 2007.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation say these statistics for the UK are not enough and even more oversight is needed. Yet in Ireland we won't even reveal how many intercepts are carried out each year. The Dept of Justice refuses to release the data even under Freedom of Information - citing security reasons.
We employ a High Court judge to check whether the gardai or the army have done anything wrong like mistakenly tapping the wrong phone. Thankfully we don't pay this judge anything extra on top of his normal salary for doing this work.
The gardai's spying is carried out by its Crime and Security division based in Phoenix Park. Once a year a High Court judge visits the park and two other sites (on the same day!) to check whether the guys doing the phone tapping have been following the rules.
As TJ McIntyre, head of Digital Rights Ireland, pointed out earlier this year the level of detail in these reports is underwhelming. Following on from TJ's post we unearthed all the reports filed over the years and found them to be remarkably similar and lacking in detail. They don't even tell us how many intercepts were performed by each agency.
We should be aspiring to a model of regulation at least as detailed as the UK's as TJ wrote earlier this year.
Judge Iarfhlaith O'Neill has recently filed his report for 2009. It is open for him to give more detail to the public but Judge O'Neill is obviously not a man who wants to break with tradition. See if you can spot any differences between his '08 and '09 reports as submitted to the Oireachtas.
There was an interesting debate on this legislation in 1993 when Willie O'Dea, then a junior minister, revealed there were 40 intercepts in operation in the state. This number is likely to have increased substantially since 1993. O'Dea said at the time it would be up to the judges to decide whether they would include statistics in their reports. Unfortunately none have.
One of those calling on the government to establish a more transparent system in that 1993 debate was Mary Harney, a then opposition TD. Now that Harney is in power she was part of a cabinet that approved a similar system that assured us that "judicial oversight" of state surveillance would be a sufficient safeguard for the public. Once again, however, there were no assurances that any information on mistakes or errors would be made public.
Dermot Ahern passed the new covert surveillance bill in July. The operation of surveillance by security forces under this bill is monitored by Judge Kevin Feeney, of the High Court. It will be interesting to see if Feeney's annual report will be in anyway more detailed than the useless reports filed by O'Neill and his predecessors.