The Data Protection Commissioner has said the law should be clarified to ensure that gardaí can only access individual phone records when they are investigating serious crime.

Speaking at the launch of his office's annual report, Commissioner Billy Hawkes said amendments to legislation brought in last year allow gardaí investigating all crimes to access telephone records.

However, he said this should be confined to investigations into serious crime only, and welcomed an EU directive which would require the Government to change the law accordingly.

Mr Hawkes also called for a checklist to be created which gardaí would have to work through before being given access to telephone records.

He said an investigation by his office had found that hundreds of individual call records were being accessed by gardaí each month.

He said he had no reason to believe gardaí were using the data improperly, but said the law needed to be clearer on how and when it could be accessed.

Concern over media

Mr Hawkes said slipping standards in the media's respect for personal privacy was of concern.

He said his office had received three complaints last year about media intrusion. While he would not give details about the cases, he said following investigations his office decided in one of the cases that the media outlet concerned had breached the data protection laws.

He said he was happy that the Government was working on a broad twin track approach aimed at reforming libel law, and at the same time strengthening privacy rules. The commissioner said the media had to take more responsibility for their actions.

Mr Hawkes said the greatest single cause of complaint to his office last year was so-called 'cold calling', where marketing companies use unsolicited phone calls to the public to try and sell them a product or service. However, he said that his office was working with ComReg to tackle the problem.

Last year also saw the Data Protection Commission's first successful prosecution under data protection law.

The case was taken against a mobile phone marketing company which used a 'missed call' technique to con mobile phone users to call back a premium rate competition line. The operators of the service pleaded guilty in the case, and were convicted and fined €1,500 in the courts.