AT least one social welfare official is being investigated for selling sensitive information about citizens to private investigators, the Sunday Independent has learnt.
Data Commissioner Billy Hawkes has confirmed a disturbing level of breaches of citizens' information – including PPS numbers and addresses – in offices under the control of the Department of Social Protection, which holds the largest database of private citizens in the State.
Mr Hawkes said: "There has been unlawful access to information and inadequate measures taken to guard against it. There are suspicions that some disclosure of information may have been made for payment."
The Data Commissioner launched the investigation after "serious concerns" were raised about the "extensive capacity" with which private investigators were able to access citizens' information.
In most cases, the private investigators posed as government agencies to illegally obtain the data. But in at least one other case, officials are investigating whether the information was willingly sold on by welfare officials.
The Data Commissioner said the latest investigation, which is ongoing, comes two years after a separate extensive audit was carried out by the Department of Social Protection. That particular inquiry resulted in the prosecution of three large insurance companies for breaking data-protection laws.
The Office of the Data Commissioner then made recommendations to the department in order to protect the sensitive data in its possession.
However, a separate and more recent investigation has raised further serious issues about the unlawful release of information held by the State.
Mr Hawkes told the Sunday Independent: "We have serious concerns about the Department of Social Protection, that there are adequate safeguards in place there.
"It is probably one of the biggest holders of data on all of us. Every one of us is on the database of social protection with the PPS number. In many ways, it is literally a mine of information on all of us."
The data chief said his office discovered that a number of private investigators had illegally obtained personal information on citizens by calling social welfare offices and falsely claiming to be from another government agency.
A number of these private investigators are currently being investigated.
Mr Hawkes added: "The particular reason why we are concerned is because of separate investigations we have been doing into the activities of private investigators.
"We have discovered that some of them have been getting information from the Department of Social Protection, at least in some cases by pretending to be calling from other government agencies, which would have a right to get information from social protection."
"In terms of the private investigators – and we haven't investigated all of them – we found quite extensive capacity to access the department of social protection. Many times they would be acting for outfits who were owed money by people and wanted to find where they were currently living.
"The department should be concerned about it because, again, particularly when you are dealing with the State, as with the gardai, you are often obliged to give information. You have no choice."
A spokesman for Social Protection Minister Joan Burton last night said her department was treating the revelation with the "utmost seriousness".
In a statement to the Sunday Independent, the spokesman added: "Records of data accesses by staff are kept and are subject to audit. The department investigates all cases of suspected data breaches. Breaches that are discovered by the department's own auditing and monitoring systems, or are brought to the department's attention by third parties, are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken.
"However, it should also be noted that, by the scale of the department's business, the number of data protection breaches are small, are dealt with swiftly and therefore any generalisations to the effect that the department's staff as a whole are lax in dealing with client data are grossly inaccurate."