Garda concern over gang use of encrypted phones

Encrypted mobile phones have become a “big problem” for gardaí tackling gangs and they are seeking expanded powers to demand passwords to access them.

The country’s top gangs, including the Kinahan crime cartel, are replacing encrypted phones — costing around €1,500 each — “every couple of weeks”, a senior garda has said.

Detective Superintendent Seamus Boland

In an interview, Detective Superintendent Seamus Boland of the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau told the Irish Examiner:

  • 20 serious criminal gangs are targeted by the DOCB at any one time;
  • 191 suspected gang members were arrested in 2018 and 124 in 2017;
  • €2.8m in cash was seized in 2018, and €3.4m in 2017;
  • 23 firearms were confiscated in 2018 and 29 in 2017;
  • 59 threat to life operations against “murder teams” have been conducted to date — 13 in 2018, 26 in 2017, and 20 in 2016.
  • Det Supt Boland said gardaí are seizing more encrypted phones.

    “They are a big problem,” he said. “It’s a daily experience for us now, dealing with the level of criminal we are dealing with. They will all have an ordinary phone and a PGP [encrypted Blackberry] phone for nothing else than directing drug trafficking, money laundering, shootings, and murders.”

    He said there is a provision under the Theft and Fraud Offences Act 2001 that, when operating on a court search warrant, gardaí can demand passwords to access a computer and that people have been jailed for refusing to do so.

    However, he said the power only exists for offences under that act and can not be used for other crimes.

    He said the likes of the Kinahan cartel regularly distribute a large number of encrypted phones — “20-25 at a time, definitely”— with each phone costing €1,500-€1,600.

    “Because of the security aspects of the bigger groups, they will change their encrypted phones every couple of weeks,” he said.

    Det Supt Boland said they are in “continuous interaction” with the Department of Justice and legal people and often make recommendations “where legislation might benefit us”.

    Asked if they have specifically raised the encryption matter: “Yes, and it is being reviewed.”

    This issue of greater garda powers to access encrypted devices was raised by the Garda Inspectorate last year in a review of Garda investigations of child sex abuse.

    The report of a Government implementation body said the department accepts in principle it will consider the matter, including the broader application to other crimes.

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