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Civil servants plotting mobile phone 'facial recognition' to boost sign-ups for controversial MyGovId platform

You need a PSC to get a MyGovId, and senior civil servants have looking at expanding the services available on it.

Image: Shutterstock/Russell Johnson

SENIOR CIVIL SERVANTS have been discussing the possible introduction of facial recognition technology to boost the numbers signing up for the controversial MyGovId platform.

MyGovId is an online service where you can submit a driving licence application, access your Revenue account or apply for a student grant, amongst other services. A Public Services Card is needed to apply.

According to memos of meetings seen by TheJournal.ie, civil servants suggested bringing in facial recognition tools to allow people to apply for the platform ‘from the couch’ after the numbers signing-up flagged. The idea was discussed in light of a ‘mediocre’ EU assessment of how the Irish state made public services available digitally.

In August, the Data Protection Commissioner said that its report into the legality of the card had found no lawful basis for the mandatory use of the PSC aside from welfare payments, and also found the State was unlawfully retaining the information of millions of people who applied for the card.

Despite the finding of it having an unlawful basis, the government has been ploughing ahead with its plans to expand the use of the card with civil servants told earlier this year to look at the possibility of it replacing the medical card.

MyGovId has proven similarly controversial in recent weeks. The Irish Examiner reported last month that having a MyGovId would be the only way to access the new National Childcare Scheme until late January of next year.

The new scheme offers increased subsidies for parents, including middle-income families who haven’t not been claiming relief from the State up to now, the government has said. 

To get a MyGovId, however, you need a PSC. And despite the finding it was unlawful to make the PSC mandatory for anything other than welfare, the government made it the case that you need a PSC – and through that a MyGovId – to access this childcare scheme.

However, according to documents released to TheJournal.ie via the Freedom of Information Act, civil servants expressed unease at the low sign-up rate for MyGovId to date. 

While over 3 million people in the State have a PSC, only a fraction of these have signed up for a MyGovId.

At this time last year, just over 200,000 people had signed up for MyGovId. By June of this year, that was 328,000 according to a memo from the Civil Service Management Board (CSMB).

This management board – made up of the most senior civil servants across government departments – created a new “digital leaders sub group”.

The civil servants admitted that Ireland had received a “fairly mediocre assessment” in recent EU stats on how the public could access public services digitally and said progress could only be made if “every public service body raised the profile and priority of its digital transformation”. 

A meeting of the CSMB in February shows a clear strategy of making MyGovId the only port of call for the National Childcare Scheme.

According to a memo from that February meeting, under a heading of ‘group objectives’, various specified departments were to continue to work to deliver the scheme “based on MyGovId as the only means of electronic log in”. 

In order to boost take-up of MyGovId, the group said it would “work together to develop an ‘enrol from the couch’ solution for MyGovId, thus addressing the need for significant cohorts of people to revisit Intreo offices in person to complete the current MyGovId enrolment process”. 

By June, the CSMB said that such a ‘from the couch’ solution was being looked into.

It said: “In particular, work continues regarding the potential use of mobile phone facial recognition to allow sign-up ‘from the couch’; and the inclusion of extra points of presence, such as An Post, to make the potential requirement to drop into an office for MyGovId registration more convenient.”

Facial recognition has also been a similarly contentious topic given the claims that the government uses biometric processing for the Public Services Card. A person’s biometric data can refer to details of their faces, voices, fingerprints or other identifying factors etc.

The government has maintained no biometric data is stored on the PSC, but a circular supplied to civil servants last year – and seen by TheJournal.ie – highlights the use of facial matching software in the PSC process.

The mobile phone facial recognition software highlighted as a solution to help increase take-up of MyGovId raises similar questions when it comes to the government’s potential processing and collection of biometric data.

That June memo also stressed that the Departments of Health, Agriculture and Education along with the Passport Office were to “complete their plans to go live with MyGovId”. 

Even more expansion for MyGovId was plotted by the senior civil servants, with suggestions that the Central Statistics Office should “investigate integrating the use of MyGovId with the Labour Force Survey and also the feasibility of moving to a Census Online”.

It’s understood that the Data Protection Commissioner may look to initiate enforcement action against the government over its findings on the Public Services Card in the coming weeks. 

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Sean Murray

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