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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
# Big Brother
Pretty soon you're going to need this card to do a whole load of important things in Ireland - but why?
Applying for a passport and a driver’s licence will soon require the Public Services Card – but that’s only the beginning.

An examples of the new-style Public Services Free Travel Card File photo: an example of Ireland's Public Services Card

IN LATE MAY, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform confirmed that, from 17 June and September respectively, a Public Services Card (PSC) will be required for Irish citizens to apply for a driver theory test or passport.

That confirmation on 22 May came two days after the launch of Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael leadership campaign, a campaign which saw Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe rubber-stamped as one of the now-Taoiseach’s closest allies in Government. It also led to accusations that the State was attempting to introduce what is in effect a national identity card “by stealth”.

For many, the announcement would be the first they had even heard of the PSC. For others, who had been a recipient of a welfare benefit at any time since its introduction in 2012, the card would be relatively familiar – all such payments at the Department of Social Protection have been processed using the card since that time.

But passports and driving licences (applications for a licence are set to require a PSC from early next year) are just the tip of the iceberg. The Government’s plan is to introduce the card for a whole host of services as part of a grander strategy. Donohoe, meanwhile, insists that despite the card’s rollout nearly across the board it will be in no way mandatory to carry one.

But some people in Ireland remain unconvinced the card’s pending universality is even legal.

What is in store for the Irish public?

The reasons for the State’s urgency in wishing to expand usage of the card appears to stem from two things – a government decision four years ago to expand the Public Services Card as a means to access all “appropriate” public services by 2016, and the pre-purchase of three million such cards by Social Protection.

As of 11 May 2017, just under 2.6 million such cards had been issued to citizens. “We should not miss out on relatively straightforward means to push towards that (three million) figure,” an OGCIO (Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, the main data service of the Government, and a subsidiary of Public Expenditure and Reform) email from November 2016 states.

Should the three million figure not be reached by end 2017, the cost of the unused cards becomes payable in full.

It may well be the case that between the driving licence and passport initiatives, the Department of Social Protection (the department which issues the cards) will meet that target.

The reasoning behind moving to one-card-for-all-services has its roots in modern-day best-data-practice (that is, as a safeguard against identity theft) – an integration of all departments and services under one umbrella. Naturally, however, possessing such a card means having your personal data on the books of multiple government departments.

Big Brother, by accident or design, but Big Brother nonetheless.

As of late last year, various government departments were surveyed as to how applicable the use of the PSC might be concerning their services.

Passport and driver’s licence applications have already been announced, as previously mentioned, but other identified targets according to documents released to include:

  • The Revenue Commissioners, with the PSC potentially used to access online tax services
  • Education – SUSI online college grants (from April 2018), school transport services, Solas course referrals, online teacher services
  • Transport – Motor tax, change of car ownership
  • Agriculture – access to
  • Department of Justice – the national age card
  • Health – Plans to authenticate patients’ identities via a ‘patient portal’ and the PSC by 2018
  • Prison services – visitors to be required to carry PSC as ID – currently on trial at Midlands Prison Portlaoise

Such changes may take time, but the fact remains that the use of a Public Services Card to access multiple, crucial State services is very close to being a reality. Which somewhat gives the lie to the idea that possessing one will not be compulsory.

Or, “what’s a public services card and why do I need one?” as an acquaintance who recently went to renew her driver’s licence told

90426581_90426581 Leah Farrell Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, pictured after he registered for a Public Services Card in August 2016 Leah Farrell

Cross-department cooperation

The various departments and state bodies involved in the project to make various state services available only with a Public Services Card have not always seen eye-to-eye, meanwhile.

However, such differences tend to be the result of conflicts arising over how best to implement the changes needed to roll out the card, according to documents released to under Freedom of Information by the Department of Public Expenditure.

Those kinds of conflict are perhaps understandable given the large-scale nature of a project involving so many disparate people and agencies.

No issue seems to exist for the various departments regarding the statutory nature, or legal standing, however of the card itself.

The main issues seen have been between the Departments of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Public Expenditure and Reform, and relate to when the announcement regarding the need for a PSC in order to book a driving test or renew a passport should be made, with “residual concerns” over “our previous experiences with DFA” expressed by one Social Protection employee.

Foreign Affairs’ chief concern regarding the card was the possibility that requiring it would create an enormous backlog in passport-applications (an eventuality that has already come to pass via Brexit), with the situation further complicated by that Department’s announcement of a new online-renewal system for passports in March of this year.

The released documents show that, rather than late May as eventually transpired, Donohoe was initially slated to make his announcement regarding the PSC expansion on 20 March.

Whispers from Foreign Affairs meanwhile suggest that the leaking of the plans for the Public Services Card in May was “Donohoe doing a solo run”.

Legal basis

Strife between civil service factions aside, when queried by a journalist in early May as to the legal standing of the Government requesting that applicants for the driver theory test have a Public Services Card, Public Expenditure’s response was that the issue is a “State requirement”.

“You might note that the use of the Public Service Card for access to public services is a Government Decision,” one Department civil servant said by email to a Road Safety Authority (RSA) employee who had queried as to how best to answer the media request.

tj TJ McIntyre

“The (card) is seen as an important step in increasing the protection of personal data and data subject rights.”

The State requirement in question pertains to the creation of MyGovId, an ‘online identity to match a citizen’s real world identity’ based upon the Public Services Card (at present MyGovId, which was launched in late March, is only applicable online to Welfare services).

But the legality of the blanket-requirement for a the card is categorically disputed by online data activists Digital Rights Ireland (DRI).

“Our position would be that the Public Services Card has been introduced as an identity card by stealth, and that it isn’t allowed by law,” says chair of DRI, law lecturer TJ McIntyre.

The Government signed a contract to manufacture these ID cards, and now it’s engaged in a mad push to meet the terms of an ill-advised contract.
So the public is having as many of these cards as can be mustered foisted upon them. And that’s irrespective of the fact that the population doesn’t want them.

McIntyre and director of Data Compliance Europe Simon McGarr recently appeared before the Oireachtas Justice Committee to discuss the nature of the Government’s draft 2017 Data Protection Bill.

In front of that committee, McGarr posited that the Public Services Card “does have a great deal of the appearance of a national ID card scheme in its scope”.

Much of his testimony stemmed from the 2015 Bara judgement of the EU Court of Justice, which ruled that the Romanian government had acted illegally with respect to one of its citizen’s personal data by moving it between state bodies (Romania’s equivalent of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners in that case) without first asking permission.

“The State has taken many concrete steps in recent years to build not merely an ID database of which the Public Services Card is the physical manifestation but also a series of national databases intending to capture not merely all citizens’ data but also data on people travelling through the State,” McGarr said.

On each occasion that these steps have been taken, provision has been made to take the data which has been collected from individuals by other agencies for other purposes and apply it to this new purpose, this data-sharing between bodies.

“It seems to me that… there has still been… executive reluctance to absorb fully the lessons of what European law states on the limits of state data-sharing,” he added.

In reaction, Independent TD Clare Daly summarised McGarr’s statements as suggesting that Ireland is “on a collision course and… out of kilter with Europe on some of these (data protection) issues”.

McGarr acknowledged that was indeed his opinion.

This would seem to suggest that Ireland may integrate the Public Services Card across its State functions, but the EU may be far less enthused about any data-sharing between public bodies.

And with one integrated card, how can such data sharing even be avoided?

The legal quagmire for the Public Services Card may just be beginning.

Read: Explainer: What is Dáil privilege and how can it be breached?

Read: Social worker says she was given ‘sanitised’ McCabe file

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