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Irish police to get new powers to access mobile phones

A further encroachment of civil liberties.

In Ireland, the police (Gardaí) will soon have new, expanded powers that will include the right to access people’s phones, as a new criminal offense is being introduced into the country’s judicial system: refusal to surrender password.

Once the new legislation, the Garda Síochána (Powers) Bill, comes into force, it will criminalize refusal to hand over a phone passport.

Those who do that can be sent to prison for up to five years and ordered to pay a fine of up to 30,000 euros. The maximum penalties apply to what will be considered the most serious cases, where indictment has been raised and trial conducted before a judge and jury. But even those who refuse to give police access to their phones in what will be treated as less serious cases will also face prosecution, and if found guilty, pay a fine of up to 5,000 euros and spend up to a year in prison.

Irish Justice Minister Heather Humphreys presented the bill on Monday, and those behind it justify this expansion of police powers by criminal activities migrating online and criminals using devices like phones to communicate.

The Covid pandemic is cited specifically as yet another reason for introducing the new offense, as the claim is made that messaging apps and other channels of online communication are being used more and more to commit low value drug transactions between individuals.

Reports ahead of the unveiling of the bill, which is supposed to consolidate a large number of existing legal rules defining police powers, did not say explicitly under which circumstances the Irish police will be allowed to demand that a citizen hands over their phone password and in effect sign away their privacy, given the type of information stored these days on an average phone.

But the Irish Times quoted unnamed sources who said that a person refusing to surrender their device login details would have to be either a suspect or somebody suspected of obstructing an investigation into a crime – in order to be convicted and fined.

However, it remains unclear whether the right of the police to ask for passwords will be restricted only to suspects.

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