McDowell site dismisses Orwellian data fears


25 Mar 2003

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Justice Minister Michael McDowell has published a new website as part of the consultation process on the proposed Telecommunications (Retention of Data) Bill, which has raised the ire of civil liberties groups and telcos alike over the monitoring and storage of phone calls, email and internet traffic.

In an address on the site, which contains background to the proposed Telecommunications (Retention of Traffic Data) Bill, an information forum and links to relevant Irish and EU legislation governing data protection, McDowell stressed the need for an open mind on how the balance should be struck between human rights of privacy and the protection of human rights from cyber-terrorism and cyber crime.

“The legislation does not mean that the content of people’s calls are going to be stored on some database, or that the content of emails will be read by diligent gardaí or civil servants in some surreal re-make of George Orwell’s 1984. Law abiding citizens at present have nothing to fear from the retention of certain information related to landline telephones, mobile phones and internet traffic, when it is being retained solely for the purposes of detecting or preventing criminal acts, such as the awful atrocity of Omagh.”

McDowell continued: “Before the new legislation is ready for consideration by the Government my department is consulting widely on its content. And far from being a secret bill the Government Legislation Programme for the Autumn Session 2002 publicly signalled my intention to bring such a bill to the publication stage during 2003. An important first step in that consultation process was the Information Forum on Data Retention held on 24 February, 2003 and which brought together some of the key interested parties.”

At that forum, which was attended by internet service providers, telcos, government departments and human rights groups, the Data Protection Commissioner Joe Meade warned those assembled: “If you can no longer feel secure that your telephone, web surfing and electronic communications are in fact private, then that signals a major change in the nature of the society in which we are living.” He added that if traffic data is not securely controlled, the data could be used by marketers and other bodies to profile a person’s habits and movements. “This could lead to wrong assumptions about a person’s behaviour or, in extreme cases, even blackmail.”

In his address on the new site, Minister McDowell said: “It would be misleading for me not to acknowledge that I see benefits to the retention of data in the fight against crime. Criminals and terrorists, as we are well aware, respect no boundaries, whether terrestrial or in cyberspace; they have no scruples in using the methods of modern technology to plan and execute despicable acts.

“Are we to allow these people uninvestigable access to modern technologies – such as newer generation mobile phones and the internet – in pursuance of their aims and objectives? And are we to place insuperable obstacles in the way of the Garda Síochána, whom we expect to protect us from the criminal and safeguard our hard-won freedoms and liberties?” McDowell asked.

Interested parties can contribute to the debate by emailing their comments or suggestions to dataretention@justqp.justice.ie. The new site can be accessed at http://www.justice.ie/80256976002CB7A4/vWeb/fsWMAK4Q7JKY

By John Kennedy