Big Brother is watching… (and may be restricting your activities)

The run-up to the visit of Elizabeth Windsor to Ireland has seen the Gardaí requesting personal data from people who both live and work on the way she'll wend through Dublin's streets; announce restrictions on movement through those streets; and the City Council bring a postering ban into force (the postering ban doesn't apply to commercial advertising on billboards, obviously). Meanwhile Apple have been criticised for collecting data on iPhone users' movements, and the EU wants your credit card number. It's been a good month for State and corporate intrusiveness, writes Alison Spillane. 

As the visit of Mrs Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor draws closer, stories are beginning to surface about the authorities requesting personal information from Irish citizens and potentially restricting their movements during the royal visit.

In recent weeks, the Irish Independent and the Evening Herald as well as the website have carried stories about members of An Garda Síochána conducting informal interviews with residents living in the vicinity of the planned routes for the British monarch’s visit next week.

The information requested from residents includes names, previous addresses, phone numbers, date of birth and car registration numbers. According to a poster on, Gardaí will also be searching houses as part of the security measures. The poster enquired of other users whether the Guardians of the Peace needed a warrant to search the premises – it was interesting to see how the debate unfolded.

In a somewhat typical display of Irish deference, many users advised him/her not to make a fuss with one commenter writing 'any decent person with an ounce of common sense would just let them get on with it rather than stamping their feet and blathering on about Constitutional rights when there's no need to.' Others wrote that insisting the Gardaí comply with the most basic of protocols would only 'pique their suspicions'.

Thankfully, other posters were quick to point out that the Constitution was not designed to be circumvented for convenience’s sake. And, as one particularly sage poster observed, “If you’re afraid to use your rights for fear of the consequences then you don’t really have those rights in the first place.”

The question of political censorship and restricting citizens’ movements has also been raised with regard to Mrs Windsor’s visit. Dublin City Council has announced restrictions on postering for the duration of the State visits (effective from 15 – 25 May) purportedly in the interest of 'promoting a clean environment'.

While we mightn’t agree with the content of particular postering campaigns relating to the royal visit, this kind of political censorship is both disappointing and depressing. The Council Press Office told CrisisJam, 'We are not employing a blanket ban, and we will weigh up each application on its own merits,' yet groups who submitted postering applications received a wholly different response telling them no postering applications would be granted between the 15 and 25 May.

Restrictions will also be placed on citizens’ movements during the State visits. A Garda press release states, 'Pedestrians in city centres will be limited to crossing streets and roads at designated crossing points due to the erection of barriers along key routes. In addition, pedestrians may for security reasons be subject to search by members of An Garda Síochána at specific points.' The public is also told to expect traffic and parking restrictions, diversions and/or road closures.

To return to the issue of data protection, should the ability of the Gardaí to make random house calls and request personal information from residents who are not suspected of any crime be questioned? The details they are gathering about us are valuable and we should not feel like we are inconveniencing them or causing unnecessary hassle by being prudent and enquiring about the purpose for which the data is being collected and when and how it will be disposed of.

Concerns surrounding data protection have come to the fore repeatedly in the past couple of months. In the Dáil chamber, questions were asked about the way in which the Census 2011 data would be processed.

The revelation in the run-up to Census 2011 that an English company called CACI UK was involved in the processing of census data caused concern among those familiar with its parent company, CACI International. In 2003/2004 CACI International provided interrogation services to the U.S. army in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. In response to queries from Deputies Clare Daly and Richard Boyd-Barrett, Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe told the Dáil CACI UK was of the ‘highest integrity’, operating under the ‘highest standards of confidentiality’.

TDs have also debated an EU Directive on Passenger Name Record (or PNR) data which, if introduced, will require all airlines flying to and from destinations in the EU to transfer passenger data to national authorities on request. Such data may include, for example, home address, mobile phone number, frequent flyer information, email address, and credit card information.

The proposal does prohibit the use of sensitive data such as information relating to political opinions, religious beliefs, trade union membership or data concerning the health or sexual life of an individual.

PNR data will be kept for 30 days after a flight, after which the passenger’s name must be deleted, but the anonymous data can be stored for up to five years. Each Member State will be required to establish Passenger Information Unit (PIU) to which airlines will be required to transfer data on passengers on international flights.

The motive given for the proposed data sharing agreement is for the “prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of terrorist offences and serious crime”. However, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has observed that the need to collect or store massive amounts of personal information must rely on a clear demonstration of the relationship between use and result.

The Fundamental Rights Agency supports this view, stating that it is 'essential to demonstrate effectively' that the collection and use of PNR data is “beyond any doubt absolutely necessary” for combating terrorism and serious crime. And the European monitoring group Statewatch observes that the European Commission has, so far, “produced no concrete evidence to demonstrate the actual usefulness of the collection of PNR data for the prevention of serious crime or terrorist offences”.

Outside of Leinster House, IT giant Apple recently made the news over allegations that company has been tracking and retaining information about the movements of iPhone users. It has been reported that data protection regulators in the EU may take action against Apple and Sony (the latter made the headlines when its network was hacked, compromising personal information of up to 77 million customers).

In another recent incident, students and staff of Trinity College were shocked to learn on 29 April that personal information such as addresses, ID numbers, and emails had been inadvertently available on the local College network for a period of 20 months due to an error on the Library’s database.

Issues surrounding personal data and freedom of movement should be debated – on an international scale we need to question where to draw the line between actions which aim to protect innocent citizens from terrorism and actions which result in the policing of those same citizens. We know for certain that governments, institutions, corporations etc. hold a massive amount of information about us – what we can’t always be sure of is how they use and store this information. Perhaps I am the sole tin foil hat wearer, but if a Guardian of the Peace knocks on your door don’t be reluctant to exercise your Constitutional rights.