Gardaí call to access digital devices to tackle online child abuse imagery

10/02/2020 - 06:36

By Cormac O'Keeffe

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said his officers should have the power to demand passwords to digital devices in a bid to tackle the “evil crime” of online child abuse imagery.

He is also calling for an “electronic key” that would legally enable detectives to access encrypted communications used by organised crime.

The police chief was speaking at the launch of the signing of a voluntary agreement between the Gardai and six telecommunication and internet companies blocking access to a list of known websites containing child abuse images.

The Garda Blocking Initiative was set up in Nov 2014 and Virgin Media (the UPC) was the first to sign up, but has now been joined BT Ireland, Eir Ireland, Sky Ireland, Tesco Mobile. Three Ireland and Vodafone Ireland.

Commissioner Harris said that “certainly” in relation to serious crime, such as the possession of child abuse images, that the legal right to demand passwords to devices “should be a power that is open to us” and part of the garda ability to search for evidence.

He said that if gardaí can obtain a warrant to search a location for physical evidence they should be able to do the same for evidence that is recorded digitally.

“You are asking almost for people to be compelled to provide a password — that's a new, in effect, power that we will be seeking,” the commissioner said.

In relation to accessing encrypted communications, such as Whatapp or Facebook Messenger, he said that laws providing law enforcement with an “electronic key” would be “very useful”.

He said:

Criminals, not only in the child abuse space but right across all elements of organised crime, are relying more on encryption and we wish to be in a position to defeat that.

Detective Chief Superintendent Declan Daly of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau said that while they have other tools they have had discussions with the Department of Justice about new legislation that would “make it an offence to withhold passwords”.

He said the new memorandum is not a “silver bullet” to end the existence of child abuse imagery online, but said it is a “significant step forward”.

He said the seven companies cover 96% of the online customer base and that these users would be prevented from accessing the “worst sites” and block access by redirecting them to a Garda stop page.

The list is provided by Interpol and there are currently 1,857 sites on it, he said.

The chief executives of the six new companies along with employers' group, IBEC, were present at the event in Garda HQ.

In relation to judicial criticisms of the five-year backlog top bring cases of child abuse imagery from detection to prosecution, Chief Supt Daly said there is no longer a five-year delay and that a “lot of inroads” have been made to reduce that time.

Commissioner Harris said there was an “operational and reputational risk” to the organisation caused by the waiting time, but said he is putting resources into the Cyber Crime Bureau, which examines the devices.

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