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Mandatory not compulsory

There were fears the PSC would become a “de facto” national ID card from the very outset

Eight years ago, the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) asked why the card needed to contain so much information and how they worried it would end up being demanded for all sorts of public services.

CONCERNS WERE RAISED over the public services card becoming a “de facto” national ID card at the very earliest meetings about its introduction.

Eight years ago, the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) asked why the card needed to contain so much information and how they worried it would end up being demanded for all sorts of public services.

The issues were flagged in late 2009 at preliminary meetings between officials from the DPC and their counterparts in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, who were responsible at the time.

An email sent from the data protection office early in 2010 said:

The Commissioner is concerned that the inclusion of the [PPS number] is not justified in a circumstance where it is encoded on the card and would serve to support arguments that the Public Services Card is a de facto national identity card to be demanded indiscriminately.

The email also said legislation, as it was then worded, could end up letting public bodies demand the Public Services Card when providing any service.

It said: “It would be our fear and expectation that this would lead to the card being sought in situations where it was not necessary or justifiable.”

The concerns over having to provide the card to access a wider range of public services proved prescient during a recent storm of publicity about its use.

In the most controversial case, the Department of Social Protection cut off an elderly woman’s pension because she had refused to sign up for the card.

However, it was forced to reverse its position under public pressure and the Data Protection Commissioner has now launched an investigation into whether the extended use of the card is fully compliant with the law.

Minutes of the January 2010 meeting also show how the Department at one stage wanted the nationality of a person to appear on the card.

The minutes said: “[The Data Protection Commissioner] confirmed … it would fully oppose any move to amend the specification to allow a cardholder’s nationality appear.”

Later emails reveal how further consideration was being given to include other personal details on the card in parallel with a separate project for EU driving licences.

The Data Protection Commissioner responded saying: “The inclusion of such details would also, of course, make it ever more difficult to put forward a case that the Public Services Card was not a de facto national ID card.”

Documents obtained under an FOI request also show how last year the Data Protection Commissioner believed the Department of Social Protection was not doing a good enough job keeping people informed about the public services card.

An email sent in December 2016 said: “[We] outlined why in our view there is a pressing need for updated, clearer, and more detailed information to be communicated to the public … regarding the mandatory use of the PPSN and Public Services Card for the provision of public services.”

The office also explained how being open and transparent about how the system works would help maintain “public confidence” in the system. In June, the Department website was updated to provide further detail on the card.

Two months later however, the Data Protection Commissioner wrote again to ask that even more detailed information be provided on the public services card listing 47 separate questions about its use.

“As we outlined yesterday, it is [our] position that these questions need to be urgently answered and published in the interests of transparency,” an email said.

We ask [this] be done as a matter of priority given the urgency with which detailed information to the public on the issues we have identified is required.

In a statement, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection said it takes its “data protection obligations very seriously”.

It said it consulted on an “ongoing basis” with the Data Protection Commissioner about any new developments in using the card.

The statement added: “The Data Protection Commissioner is clear that all uses for the [card] must be set out in legislation and the Department fully agrees with that position.”

A spokesman for the Data Protection Commissioner said: “While the card itself has over time evolved into what is now described as a token of a digital identity, the original purpose … was to facilitate physical card-based transactions with public services.

“Accordingly, [our] engagement with the Department and the views … conveyed to the Department on matters relating to [the Public Services Card] were made in that context.”

The office said it was only since 2015 that it and the public had become aware that the card would become a mandatory requirement for a range of public services.

Read: ‘I’ve had to tell more people in the last few months than in my entire life’ – Man denied Public Services Card because he’s adopted

Watch: The Public Services Card – should we care?

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