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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C

Senior civil servant said media outlets had 'agenda' against the Public Services Card

The government’s chief information officer singled out the Irish Times in a mail sent to other senior civil servants.

THE GOVERNMENT’S CHIEF Information Officer told other senior civil servants that the Data Protection Commissioner used “evidence from those with an agenda against the [Public Services] Card” in her landmark report on the legality of the card.

In August, the Data Protection Commissioner found that there was no legal basis to make the PSC mandatory for anything other than welfare and that there was no legal basis for the State to retain the personal data of people who apply for the card.

The government, however, has rejected these findings and indicated it will not be complying with the findings and will fight the matter in court if required. 

The PSC project, which has cost over €60 million to date, has seen more than 3 million people in Ireland issued with a card. Despite the negative finding against the government, civil servants have been tasked with looking at expanding the scope of the card including the possibility of using it to replace the medical card in future.

The government has been accused of damaging Ireland’s reputation through its refusal to comply with the Data Protection Commissioner’s findings but has claimed it has “incredibly strong” legal advice on the validity of its position regarding the PSC. 

In documents released to and its investigative platform under the Freedom of Information Act, internal communications at the two main government departments responsible for the PSC highlight reactions to the Data Protection Commissioner’s report.

Barry Lowry, the government’s chief information officer who works out of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in an email to other civil servants singles out a particular section of the Data Protection Commissioner’s report.

The section reads: “However, the DPC considers that such criticisms concerning the use of the PSC have been well documented in newspaper reports, civil society reports and the Oireachtas reports.”

In an attached footnote, the report highlights almost two dozen sources – including seven articles from as well as other news sources - to support the assertion that criticisms of the PSC had been well documented.

Lowry wrote to colleagues that it was “curious” the Data Protection Commissioner was using evidence from those “with an agenda against the card” over a public consultation carried out by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. 

Lowry references an article in the Irish Times as “particularly interesting because it seeks to scare the reader about the PSC by assessing the application of national identity schemes in other parts of the world”. 

The article in question from January 2018 highlights the lack of transparency around the PSC and asks why it is being brought in for more and more services with little in the way of public discussion. In the Data Protection Commissioner’s final report on the PSC in August this year, the government’s lack of transparency around the card was also criticised. 

Lowry attacks the Irish Times for a “lack of balance” in the article in question and added that “one cannot help but… also question the DPC’s judgement and understanding in quoting it”. 

In light of the government’s refusal to comply with the findings of the report, the next step for the Data Protection Commissioner is to initiate enforcement proceedings which could eventually see the matter come to court.

In a letter to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection at the beginning of September, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon said that it is “both necessary and appropriate” to take that course of action given the government’s stance on the issue. 

With additional reporting from Ken Foxe and the team at – find out more about their work here.

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