Wednesday 13 December 2017

Public 'unsettled' by stolen data scandal - minister

Simon Harris
Simon Harris

Niall O'Connor

THE revelations surrounding major breaches of data protection at one of the country's leading State agencies have "unsettled" the general public, according to minister Simon Harris.

The Fine Gael TD believes state bodies must learn lessons from the scandal which has gripped the Department of Social Protection and at least 12 of the country's credit unions.

The newly appointed junior finance minister said people need to be assured their personal data is secure after it was revealed that private investigators hired by credit unions were able to wrest reams of data from Tanaiste Joan Burton's department.

In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mr Harris expressed deep concern over the ease with which private investigators were able to dupe civil servants into handing over personal data.

In some cases, the agents employed by the credit unions obtained data through a single phone call.

But Mr Harris warned against any "knee-jerk reaction" on behalf of the government and said that the investigation by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner must be allowed to run its course.

"Data sharing is something that people generally welcome - the idea for convenience that one department can provide your information to another in a customer service type approach to save you replicating information," Mr Harris said in an interview with the Irish Independent.

"But obviously people need to know that your data is secure. I think the revelations, not wanting to preempt any court proceedings or the investigation by the Data Protection, but the revelations in your newspaper have obviously unsettled people," he added.

The Wicklow TD said he is not in favour of drafting new legislation in this area because the establishment of an investigation by Assistant Data Protection Commissioner Tony Delaney shows the current law is working.

However, he said that lessons may have to be learned by government departments and other agencies which store confidential data.

"This is something that always needs to be kept under constant review - people's data.

"They give it to (State agencies) in good faith and you need to be mindful of protecting it. And any lessons that need to be learned across State agencies, I believe will be," he said.

It was revealed this week that Ms Burton has asked two of her most civil servants to form a "high level working group" to examine the adequacy of the controls within her department.

But experts have warned that further breaches are likely to take place unless the internal controls in the Department of Social Protection are significantly strengthened.

After the breach involving department staff was flagged by Assistant Commissioner
Delaney, the department launched its only internal probe.

It was established that the details of at least 78 credit union customers had been obtained illegally by private detectives.

And they had used false identities when communicating with the civil servants involved.

Two of the credit unions at the centre of the scandal have ceased using the services of the agents in question.

A number of other credit unions are understood to be reviewing their options.

The Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) is also carrying out a review into the use of private investigators as a means of pursuing members in arrears.

Irish Independent

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