Sunday 22 September 2019

Strategy of developing a one-card-fits-all system lies in tatters

Q&A

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

What has happened? 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.

Why not?

Because the Government hasn't bothered to validate it with proper law. "The Department [of Employment Affairs and Social Protection] 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 the Irish Independent's 'Big Tech Show' podcast.

"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."

Does this mean that existing PSC cards have to be withdrawn?

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," 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."

Does that mean the department can still require you to have one to claim benefits?

Yes, but only benefits and services connected to that department.

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?

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.

Is this a big deal?

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.

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?

"No, we're not saying that at all," said Ms Dixon. "We're saying that if that's what's intended or required, it is a possibility by carefully laying down the lawful basis for such a card. But there isn't a lawful basis [as set up now]."

What happens now?

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.

What are the objections to the PSC card?

Civil liberties groups claim it runs the risk of becoming "a centralised database containing intimate, personal information" that is unsafe.

Where does this leave the PSC card?

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.

Irish Independent

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