Tuesday 17 September 2019

National ID card idea isn't dead

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon may not have killed off the PSC
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon may not have killed off the PSC
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

So the great national ID card project is dead. Or is it? The hammer blow dealt to the Public Services Card (PSC) by Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon on Friday may not have killed off the idea.

At least, that's the impression I got from speaking in-depth to Dixon about it in the current episode of my weekly podcast (independent.ie/podcasts/the-big-tech-show).

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She was at pains to point out that her damning report into the PSC isn't actually ruling out a national identification card. Again and again, she said such a card is not incompatible with data protection law (most EU countries have some sort of national ID card).

She just said that the Government hadn't made proper legislative provision for it. It wasn't pursuing an illegitimate aim; it just cocked up the way it went about it.

To recap on the basic points of what Dixon decided, she said that large chunks of the PSC's rollout have been a legislative and procedural mishmash.

What happened, she said, was that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) introduced the card for services (such as social welfare) offered by that department. Other public bodies looked at this and said, 'grand, this could be very useful for us as a proof of identification too'.

After all, why not save money and cut down on bureaucracy, maybe even fraud or impersonation, by relying on this card as well?

So they started telling citizens, 'you now need a PSC to apply for this service'. Like a passport or a driver's licence.

They didn't say, 'you can use the PSC as one acceptable form of ID'. They said, 'you must provide this'.

And it's this requirement that has brought the DPC down on their heads. Because there was never any sufficient law set down for that. The whole public sector system just started to incorporate it as a new standard.

So now the DPC has ordered the DEASP to do two things. First, it has to contact other public bodies and say that the PSC can no longer be a 'pre-condition' for one of those other bodies' services.

Second, the department has to delete a massive amount of data: things like copies of utility bills provided when applying for the PSC.

Again, I asked Dixon whether this was any message as to the desirability or otherwise of a national identity card to do all of the things the Government seemed to want the PSC to do.

Dixon pointedly said no, that the Government can introduce such a system, so long as it legislates for it and makes sure that data protection principles are adhered to.

This is important, because I believe that this is not the last time we'll see a national ID card on the agenda.

Remember: the DPC did not say that the PSC can't still be required for things like social welfare or other DEASP services.

Take the infamous example, exposed by former journalist Elaine Edwards, of the pensioner who was cut off for 18 months for not acceding to the department's requirement that she get a PSC.

She appealed and her pension was restored. But the appeal was only allowed on procedural grounds. The decision had no effect on the department's rule that you need a PSC to draw welfare.

And that's still the way it remains, even after the DPC decision: the PSC is mandatory for people who need access to welfare provisions. That's a lot of different services, required by a majority of the population. I'd be surprised if Minister Regina Doherty, when she eventually emerges to comment on this issue, doesn't make some version of this point: that the DPC has acknowledged that the PSC is lawfully here to stay as a mandatory document for that massive array of services.

When the dust settles on the current controversy, this is also something that will sit unhappily with many of the PSC's fiercest critics.

As will the DPC's sidelining of another objection raised about the PSC: that it weighs too heavily on the shoulders of a section of society (those in need of welfare assistance) who are less able to resist authoritarian initiatives.

This was a main point articulated by UN rapporteur on poverty Professor Philip Alston, commenting on the PSC on an Irish visit last month. But it wasn't a focus for the DPC.

"That's not a consideration in the analysis that we've conducted," Dixon told me. "We're not categorising people in the way that Professor Alston did. We're just looking at whether there's a lawful basis for the personal data processing that's taking place."

There's a deeper issue too. Underpinning at least some of the antipathy towards the PSC is a principled objection to the idea of an obligatory national identity card of any kind.

This is a long-standing tradition in common-law countries. There is an aversion to being stopped in the street and ordered to produce 'your papers'.

Many of us (me, included) bristle at the thought of it. It rests badly with our ideas of freedom and civil liberty, not to mention privacy.

And yet, it's commonplace in EU countries. Ireland is one of a small number of member states that doesn't have a national ID card system.

Paradoxically, many of those with such a system would be regarded as far more careful about data protection and privacy rights than Ireland.

More broadly, there is a general (and maybe inexorable) shift toward convenience and quick authentication in society at present. We see it strongly in payments and travel. And we're starting to see it in public sector services too, such as MyGovID (which the DPC will be looking at a little more closely soon).

So the forces, geopolitical and economic, that are pushing us toward some sort of consolidated ID may well be stronger than those trying to hold it back.

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