Wednesday 29 June 2016

The government is PPS-ing all over us

Irish Water say they'll treat our personal data as a commercial asset, and that's not on

Published 21/09/2014 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

So, this thick envelope comes through the letterbox. It lands on the floor and lies there, breathing heavily, radiating a sense of threat. Ah, says I to myself, it must be from Phil Hogan.

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A billet-doux from the departing giant of Irish politics - off to his €250,000-a-year EU Commissionership (with exhilarating expenses and appropriate pension).

How nice of Phil "Yer Boots" Hogan to leave one last memento of his reign as Enda's Chief Enforcer.

I opened Phil's missive and it was my application form for Irish Water.

I must now fill in a four-page form, "applying" to a commercial company to buy water.

Being a thoughtful lad, Phil has included a 24-page "Application Guide". The opening words at the top of page two are: "Who are we?" And they tell us they're a new company that has a "new funding model" for our water supply.

There used to be an old "funding model". It involved taking taxes from us and using part of those taxes to fund a public water supply. And I'd no problem with that. I like paying taxes for schools and hospitals and roads and water and guards and courts and fire brigades - the stuff that makes us a civilisation.

However, Phil's lads have been hard at work. And, we're all being forced to switch to this "new funding model". OK, fair enough, says I, if the government says it's OK it must be OK.

So, I'll get a tax rebate, since the old funding model is being discontinued, right?

Well, not quite.

The old funding model will continue taking our taxes, and the new funding model will run alongside it. Phil and Enda and Joan want us to pay for water on the double.

And the new lad, Alan Kelly, who got Phil's job, he's also gung-ho on charging us twice for our water.

Why are they doing this?

They're doing it, my Application Guide tells me, to safeguard a "precious natural resource".

Ah, now, come on. Fair's fair. For the sake of a quiet life, I pay what I have to pay. But don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining.

Bankers, speculators and politicians collapsed the exchequer revenue model - to use the jargon.

Just to complicate things, the politicians funded a gift of - at a conservative estimate - €64bn to gamblers. Some of them in Ireland, more in the UK, France, Germany and the USA, to compensate the poor dears for their bad investment choices.

Since then, there's been a constant stream of "taxes" and "levies" and "charges" and increases of various kinds, to plug the hole the gamblers kicked in the economy.

The government has diverted a lot of money from crucial services - that's easy, just let people get sicker or die. But it's not enough.

Ministers have to come up with plausible excuses for transferring huge wealth from the citizens - so, they think up new taxes and call them the Universal Social Charge, the Household Charge, the Local Property Tax, the Carbon Tax, the New Funding Model for Water - whatever the mugs will put up with it.

It's bad enough stiffing us for this money - it's insulting when they expect us to buy their cover story about the "precious natural resource". These are the politicians who've stood idly by for years while up to 49pc of treated water leaks into the ground.

Page three of my Application Guide says: "We are at the start of the journey together".

No, we're not on a journey together. I don't like you. You're not good company. You're taking me where I don't want to go. It'll cost me money, and that money goes into your pocket. That's the definition of a kidnapping, not a "journey together".

At first, some of us were suspicious of the fact that Irish Water won't sell us water unless we give them our PPS numbers - and that of every child in the house.

The people who sell me electricity and gas and chicken tikka masala can deliver the stuff to my house without needing my PPS number.

My name and address - I understand why they want that on their application form. But my home number? And my mobile? And my email address? And my bank account details?

I occasionally get phone calls from scammers seeking precisely the same information.

Then, I thought, oh, don't be so paranoid. They just want to pick your pockets, not snoop into your life.

Then I read the small print on the website.

Let me amend that: the print is small, it's in solid blocks of a sans serif typeface, grey type on a white background. Not the easiest thing to read. In fact, one might almost think . . .

Irish Water say they'll "use PPS Numbers to verify the identity of the applicants". No need, I'll show you my gas bill, it's got my name and address. In fact, since Irish Water is owned by Bord Gais, look it up yourself.

"Data relating to the Customer may be used for . . . marketing and credit checking purposes." Really? I'm buying a product, not going into business with you.

Our personal data, we're told, may be given to other, unspecified, agencies. They'll be careful, they say.

This is the company that a couple of weeks ago sent 6,329 letters to the wrong addresses.

According to their website, the act of giving them our personal data constitutes an agreement that they can share it with unspecified third parties. Our data can be transferred and stored anywhere in the world and processed by people doing business with Irish Water.

"By submitting data to Irish Water, the Customer agrees to this transfer, storing or processing."

They'll be careful, they say.

If Irish Water is privatised or part of it is sold to someone, or if they buy into another company, at any stage, our personal data, they admit, "will be one of the transferred assets".

It's not just the new purchaser gets our data. Irish Water "may disclose Customer data to the prospective seller or buyer". Even those who merely express an interest in buying Irish Water will have access to all that information.

They'll be careful, they say.

Our PPS number is the linchpin of our relationship with the state. It links to everything - work, tax, social welfare, travel, medical records, whatever. We don't know how this "asset" will be used.

And we don't know which other "assets" it can be linked to by imaginative young techno-nerds who spend too much time behind a keyboard (bank, credit or mortgage records, perhaps).

Privacy is a concern. But there's also the commercialisation of personal data for the financial benefit of others.

Personal information, digitised, capable of being processed on an individual or collective basis, or both, is to be made a commercial "asset". They insist we give them the information for free, at which point it becomes an asset they can sell.

We can, you'll be pleased to hear, find out what data they're storing on us. But we have to write to a box number in Cork. And pay a fee to see our own data. We must also "provide suitable proof of identification".

These people are PPS-ing all over us.

The professional classes are making a killing on this one, with everyone on premium rates. So far, Irish Water has allocated €86m for consultants and lawyers. Just setting up the company and its "new funding model" is budgeted at €150m. On top of which there's a €30m "contingency fund" - which is technical language for "the way these people charge, we know the €150m won't be enough".

The government, I fear, will get away with it. The fighting Irish have shown a remarkable ability to nod and shuffle and say, "Well, if you think so, sir, you go right ahead".

For the sake of a quiet life, we pay what we have to pay.

Let me remind you, as a proud Dub but a realist, that the motto of our capital is "Obedientia Civium, Urbis Felicitas": The obedient citizen makes for a happy city.

Well, it makes for happy politicians, happy gamblers, happy consultants, happy lawyers, happy purchasers of valuable "assets".

Sunday Independent

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