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'We were bad, what Ireland is doing is 10 times worse' - International experts unimpressed with Public Services Card

A public meeting on the Public Services Card yesterday heard that the more data protection in Ireland changes, the more it stays the same.

1022 PSC centre_90522212 The Public Services Card centre on D'Olier Street in central Dublin Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

YESTERDAY, THE IRISH Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) held a public meeting in Dublin to discuss the Public Services Card and the attendant national biometric database.

The PSC has been garnering headlines for nearly nine months now, with the government’s plans to expand its uses from beyond its Social Protection roots into the realms of driving test and passport applications (for starters) garnering heated criticism.

The ICCL event, held in Buswells Hotel across from Dáil Éireann, brought something new to the table in the form of a handful of international experts in privacy, whose impression of Ireland’s privacy standards are far from positive, with one speaker declaring Ireland’s plans for the PSC to be “10 times worse” than what occurred in Scotland with that country’s National Entitlement Card.

Current anecdotal evidence suggests that the Department of Social Protection is continuing an aggressive rollout of the card to all citizens who use its services, as opposed to those claiming welfare payments which was the card’s initial remit when first introduced back in 2012.

More recently, it emerged via a Freedom of Information request by the Irish Times that the Data Protection Commissioner had expressed concern over the PSC being viewed as a ‘form of national ID card’, a fact that the Department of Social Protection had initially declined to divulge in the interests of not ‘misinforming’ the public.

Meanwhile, former Chief Justice John Murray last week, in his Review of the Law on the Retention of and Access to Communications Data, declared that Ireland’s current regime of data retention amounts to ‘a form of mass surveillance of virtually the entire population of the state’.

That report was first produced last April. It was finally published six months later. Data protection is a hot topic issue in Ireland at present. And it’s a political hot potato.

National databases

Yesterday’s event saw those who have been banging the drum for a review of Ireland’s data protection regime, namely Digital Rights Ireland’s TJ McIntyre and Simon McGarr, reiterate their concerns both regarding the legal basis (or lack thereof) for the PSC’s expansion and Ireland’s prickly legal history with State databases.

McGarr raised the fact that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (which has responsibility for the PSC project) previously suggested that all queries regarding the card’s expansion can be explained by the fact it is a ‘government decision’.

“Unfortunately labeling something a ‘government decision’, whatever that is, does not make it any more legal,” he said.

McIntyre suggested that history can show that Ireland’s standards regarding the maintenance of national databases are chequered at best – the retention of 33 years worth of baby blood DNA records via the National Newborn Bloodspot Screening Programme (the heel prick test administered to all newborns) being just one of the issues raised.

4 The Public Services Card

Last month Minister for Health Simon Harris acknowledged in the Dáil not only that Ireland is in breach of both EU and national law in maintaining the blood database, but also that the State has no intention of destroying it, despite a 2009 resolution from the DPC indicating that it should do so.

What Scotland did

Ireland’s own recent struggles regarding the privacy of its citizens are well documented – what those watching from afar think of it all are less so.

The talk brought two academic doctors from the UK, Tom Fisher of Privacy International and John Welford of anti-database group NO2ID, together to discuss their own take on the Irish situation.

Welford, who has spent much of his retirement fighting the establishment of the National Entitlement Card in Scotland, was particularly strident.

1328 Public Service Card scheme_90526223 TJ McIntyre (left) and Simon McGarr Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

“I was highly motivated to come here today, I’m horrified by what’s going on in Ireland,” he said.

What’s going on in Scotland is bad, but Ireland is 10 times worse.

Scotland’s National Entitlement Card (NEC) was first introduced in 2006.

“This new bus pass was brought in 2006. That’s what people call it, that’s what they still call it. But the card itself doesn’t say what it is,” said Welford.

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He said that the NEC was first intended to replace the existing bus pass, with the larger plan being to then link the card to a citizen’s data account.

“The pattern is always the same,” he said, that is: a card with an innocuous title, the gradual change of what the card is primarily intended to be used for (mission creep), and then the coercion of citizens into using it whether they wish to do so or not (the need for someone to have a PSC in order to apply for a passport for example).

Apart from anything else, he said, “in the era of cyber crime it’s suicide to create these large government databases”.

It just gives criminals something to aim at.

Welford also found time to take a swipe at Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty’s by-now notorious declaration that the PSC is ‘mandatory but not compulsory’: “There will be confusion over whether a card is voluntary or mandatory – cards are often issued on a voluntary basis at the start to make them less threatening.”

‘It’s not about who you trust now’

Fisher, meanwhile, suggested that the introduction of powerful databases are “not a question of who you trust now”.

“It’s about who you can trust in 30 or 40 years. Who will be in power then? Trump is a perfect example. You don’t know who’s going to be in charge,” he said.

These are things that should be debated officially if they’re going to be introduced.

welford John Welford Source: Twitter/ICCL

The latter point is particularly relevant for Ireland – the expansion of the PSC has of course been pursued without any dedicated Oireachtas debate whatsoever.

He dismissed the idea that the PSC can be used to curb wholesale welfare fraud.

“Very little benefit fraud pertains to someone claiming to be who they aren’t,” he said.

It comes from people looking for things that they’re not entitled to.

He hearkened back to the UK’s second attempt at a national ID card (the first was introduced in World War II and rescinded in 1952), which took five years to be introduced by Tony Blair (who became enamoured of the idea in the wake of 9/11), which ended disastrously with the card being abolished by now-Prime Minister Theresa May in 2010.

Tony Blair couldn’t understand why the introduction of an ID card should be so controversial. But it is.

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