GUBU 2.0: Could it happen again?

GUBU in 2015: Phone tapping never went away

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, February 2015 edition

Late last year, the Irish Times reported exclusively on secret courts set up by justice minister Frances Fitzgerald to regulate requests for Irish data from GCHQ. The courts were set up after files released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ was illegally tapping data on the internet pipes leaving Ireland, which travel through the UK. The new courts, established by statutory instrument, make it a crime to report that a company has been ordered to appear before the in camera courts.

Aiden Gillen as taoiseach Charles J Haughey during the GUBU years, from the recent RTE Drama "Charlie". Image: RTÉ.
Aiden Gillen as taoiseach Charles J Haughey during the GUBU years, from the recent RTE Drama “Charlie”. Image: RTÉ.

Exclusive is a much abused word in journalism, but for once it is accurate. A month after the story was broken by Karlin Lillington, no other newspaper or broadcaster has covered it. Privacy, and in particular online privacy, remains a little understood concept in the Irish media. While Irish journalists reminisced about CJ Haughey as RTE showed its three part series “Charlie”, their memories colouring their judgment of the ambitious but flawed programme, another Charlie made headlines in France. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, leaders who linked arms in Paris in the name of free speech announced in lockstep days later the need for increased surveillance on their citizens.

Charlie Haughey accidentally invented Irish privacy rights in 1983. His justice minister didn’t object at the thought of tapping the phones of journalists – they were a security threat, the Boss said so – but after the affair became public as part of the year of GUBU, legal cases by Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold led the courts to outline a right to privacy. Technology has moved on from 1983, when many rural phones were still connected through manual exchanges and the Apple IIe and Commodore 64 were the height of computing sophistication. Not surprisingly, the law has struggled to keep up.

In principle, surveillance of Irish citizens is governed by two laws. Data interception (telephone tapping) is regulated by the 1993 Interception of postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act, while, law on data retention comes under the 2003 Data Protection Act, with an annual report prepared by an independently appointed designated judge. These reports can be laughably brief, often amounting to a single page.

In practice, a myriad of other laws, governing everything from the coroners’ courts to the investigation of shipping accidents, give State agencies access to personal data.

“The headline stuff is the 1993 Act for interception and the 2003 Act for data retention, but there is a bit question mark over how other powers could be used,” says TJ McIntyre, law lecturer and chairman of the independent civil liberties group Digital Rights Ireland.

“There’s tonnes of legislation that give powers to, not just the Gardai but investigators in the department of agriculture, revenue commissioners and other state bodies, and the obvious concern is that these bodies may demand documents as may be found, and obviously those powers can be used to get their hands on particular communications.”

“There’s also the concern that the Garda or other state agencies might also be getting voluntary disclosure of some information, for example going to social network sites and asking to see direct (private) messages between people, and perhaps even if they don’t have the power to compel disclosure, that site might be disclosing them anyway.”

“US firms wouldn’t do that, as to the extent that their operations are based in the US they would have to comply with US laws which are more stringent, and normally would insist on some sort of US process. But domestic firms I would be a bit more worried about.”

“To put this into context. There is a wider European context, under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which is quite clear that when you have state surveillance systems, you should have certain safeguards in place.

“So if you don’t have a judge authorising access to information beforehand, you should have some sort of judicial oversight of the system as a whole, the systems have to be prescribed by law setting out when they can be used, what kind of crimes are being investigated and so on.”

Digital Rights Ireland last year pursued Ireland to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), securing a judgment striking down Irish data retention laws as excessive. The government, perhaps anticipating a successful challenge to its 2006 regulations on data retention, passed the Communications (Retention of Data) Act in 2011.

McIntyre is unconvinced anything has changed as a result of the ECJ decision.

“It would be disappointing if the telecoms companies had not approached the state to amend the practice in Ireland after the DRI decision, and I would be fairly confident they hadn’t,” he says. “The State’s position, as far as the State is concerned the 2011 Act is still in force and while that is the case, everything is hunky dory, nothing to see here, nothing to worry about. And our position is no, the 2011 Act is unconstitutional and by continuing to keep their head in the sand the State is only storing up problems for the future.”

“I think it is very likely you are going to see convictions quashed in the future because evidence was admitted when it shouldn’t have been admitted, when there was no statutory basis for it.”

The Morris tribunal revealed two instances where confidential telephone data was obtained outside the regulatory framework. In the first instance, telephone records were obtained by an officer in Garda HQ who phoned the GPO, where the then publicly owned Telecom Eireann (now Eircom) was based, and asked the person who answered the phone for the records. He produced no warrant or authorisation, and the records were sent to him within a few days. The officer said this was the only time he had done this, as the records were needed urgently and he didn’t have time to process the paperwork, and that he did not recall the name of the person he spoke to in Telecom Eireann.

In the second case, private investigator Billy Flynn was able to obtain the home telephone records of a Donegal garda, something Garda investigators could not do. Flynn later claimed that he was able to do this because he serendipitously gave a lift to a hitch-hiker who worked for the phone company, who was able to provide him with exactly the printouts he needed in order to further his investigation.

Barrister Fergal Crehan notes that such instances of “informal” garda requests, and “blagging”, are not simply glitches that happened in Donegal decades ago, pointing to a recent prosecution of a private investigator by the Data Protection Commissioner.

“A garda witness was treated as a hostile witness, and it emerged from that that the garda really had no reason to be accessing the PULSE data in question. We can only speculate on the extent of those activities.”

“The people who have access to this information often are not earning a lot of money, they’re not in the boardroom. If people aren’t earning a whole lot of money, if you throw them €50 they’d be far more likely to say yes than somebody higher up the hierarchy.

“You ask could GUBU happen again,” says Fergal Crehan. “The answer is, it is already happening literally on an industrial scale.”

Crehan points out that what was said in the tapped phone calls of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold wasn’t really what Charlie Haughey’s government cared about. Haughey already knew there were leaks in the cabinet. That was why the taps were set up in the first case. What really mattered was the metadata. Who were the journalists talking to, and when? That kind of metadata is stored by Irish internet and telecoms companies for Garda authorities, and can be accessed – legally and illegaly – by foreign agencies such as the NSA.

Metadata – data about data – is the kind of thing that makes non-geek eyes glaze over, but such data, even anonymised, can be enough to identify unique patterns. As a recent public example, by comparing telephone data released under Freedom of Information with Oireachtas attendance records, the Sunday Times was able to identify Michelle Mulherin as the TD who made numerous mobile phone calls to Kenya.

GUBU was a lifetime ago. Then, the Garda had to take specific steps to get information on an individual telephone. Today, all that information is collected and stored as a matter of course.Small wonder then that several journalists to this writer’s knowledge carry several throwaway “burner” mobile phones at any time.


Appendix: Legislative provisions permitting access to telecommunications and other data (or any data at all, in some cases).

Communications (Retention of Data ) Act 2011
Data Protection Acts
Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) Act 2000.
Regulation 21(6) Medicinal Products (Prescription and Control of Supply) Regulations 2003 to 2008
Competition Act, 2002 (with a warrant from the District Court)
Criminal Justice Act 1994
Coroners Act 1962 Section 26
Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) Act 2000

Agencies who can access data under above laws:

Competition Authority
Coroners Court
Defence Forces
Dept of Justice Equality and Law Reform
Garda Ombudsman
Garda Siochana
Irish Medicines Board
Local Authorities
Marine Casualty Investigations Board
Revenue Commissioners