Q&A: everything you need to know about the Public Services Card crisis
The data protection commissioner has dealt a huge blow to the controversial Public Services Card (PSC).
Here we answer your questions on what has occurred.
Q. What has happened?
A. The Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) says that you can’t be forced to use the Public Services Card (PSC) as required ID when you apply for services outside the Department of Social Protection.
Q. Why not?
A. Because the government hasn’t bothered to validate it with any proper law. "The Department does not have a legal basis for processing personal data when it's in the case of a person who's seeking to avail of a service with the public sector body other than the department itself," said Helen Dixon, Data Protection Commissioner, in an interview with Independent.ie. "A public sector body cannot now require someone who doesn't already have one, to go and procure one in order to avail of their service."
Q. Does this mean that existing PSC cards gave to be withdrawn?
A. No. Ms Dixon stopped short of saying that the Public Services Card must be scrapped. "Any cards that have been issued, their validity is not in question by anything we've found in this report," she said. "They can continue to be used in the context of availing of free travel or availing of benefits that a person is claiming from the department."
Q. Can I still use my PSC card as proof for a passport or a driver’s licence if they tell me that’s an option?
A. Yes. Ms Dixon said that the PSC can be used voluntarily by a citizen as a valid proof. "If someone optionally brings their Public Services Card to renew their driver's licence, there is no issue with that. But what we're saying is that it must be an option,” she said.
Q. Is this a big deal?
A. Yes. State services were starting to use the PSC card as a one-card-fits-all ID system to, as they would put it, cut down on duplicate forms, repetition and fraud. That strategy is now in tatters.
Q. So why has the DPC said they can’t just get on with this?
A. Essentially, because the government hasn’t laid down the necessary law to make it possible. Helen Dixon says that the legislation only allows the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to do it for its own services.
Q. Is she saying that a one-card-fits-all system can’t be introduced?
A. “No, we're not saying that at all,” said Dixon. “We're saying that if that's what's intended or required, there isn't a lawful basis [as currently set up].”
Q. Does this mean that if the government wanted to introduce a National ID card, which critics of the PSC say it is becoming through stealth, that it’s incompatible with data protection law?
A. Again, no. “It can't be the case that a national identity card automatically offends EU charter fundamental rights or EU data protection law because they exist all around Europe,” said Helen Dixon. “It is a possibility, by carefully laying down the lawful basis for such a card.”
Q. So it’s a government cock-up?
Q. What happens now?
A. The Department of Social Protection is being ordered by the DPC to contact other public bodies and tell them the PSC card can’t be a “pre-condition” for their service.
Worse for the Department, it is also being ordered to delete a massive amount of personal data used by people when they applied for a PSC.
“The whole idea of the Public Services Card is that the Minister only issues one after a ‘Safe2’ process, which involves a face to face interview, bringing along identity documentation you already have and supporting documentation like utility bills, proof of address and so on,” Ms Dixon told Independent.ie.
“The Department is retaining [this] indefinitely. So we have said if identity is authentication, such that the Minister is satisfied to issue the public services card, then there is no basis for retaining indefinitely all of that [utility bills, ID proofs etc]. It seems to defy the logic of the card.”
Q. Did the DPC make any ruling on whether the photo on the PSC card is regarded as ‘biometric’?
A. Not yet, but Ms Dixon says that’s coming. “We are shortly going to issue further provisional findings to the Department in relation to the photo-matching templates and other areas covering security, she said. This will happen in “the next couple of months”.
Q. Will the full report into the PSC card be published?
A. Ms Dixon said that because it was initiated under older legislation, it’s up to the Department whether it wants to do that. However she said that she’s asked the Department to publish it “because we believe there is a significant public interest in in publishing the details. We have requested that the Department will either publish it itself, or give us permission to publish it.”
Q. Where does this leave the PSC card?
A. It will still be used for things like welfare allowances and other services from the Department of Employment Affairs and social Protection. But if the government thought it could be snuck in as a national identity card through the back door, it was wrong. The DPC was a little scathing in its assessment of the PSC card, conceived as something “for actual card-based transactions” but instead “reduced to a limited form of photo-ID, for which alternative uses have had to be found.”
“Ultimately, we were struck by the extent to which the scheme, as implemented in practice, is far-removed from its original concept,” said a DPC statement. “Whereas the scheme was conceived as one that would make it easier to access (and deliver) public services, with chip-and-pin type cards being used for actual card-based transactions, the true position is that no public sector body has invested in the technology capable of reading the chip that contains the encrypted elements of the Public Sector Identity dataset. Instead, the card has been reduced to a limited form of photo-ID, for which alternative uses have then had to be found.”
Q. What are the objections to the PSC card?
A. Civil liberties groups claim that it runs the risk of becoming “a centralised database containing intimate, personal information" that’s unsafe.