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OPINION: Protecting our data from Big Brother!

Sunday, 25th August, 2019 11:45pm
OPINION: Protecting our data from Big Brother!

LAST year we were inundated, leading up to the May 31st deadline, with edicts to get our houses in order as regards the use and protection of data we held on people and how we were going to handle such data received in the future. All relevant entities are expected to be GDPR-compliant – and rightly so – yet our own government, who should be leading by example, has stubbornly refused to buy into it fully and the findings of Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon’s report last week that citizens cannot be forced to use a Public Services Card when applying for services outside the remit of the Department of Social Protection is a damning indictment, not just of Minister Regina Doherty, but of the government as a whole.

Indeed, it was quite disingenuous of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to state last weekend that he had only just become aware of the matter – especially having been a Minister for Social Protection himself up to two years ago when the Public Services Card was being mooted – and then saying that he was thinking of changing the laws, presumably with a view to enabling wider use of the card, which has been rejected by civil liberties groups as a type of national identity card by the back door because it would give true Big Brother powers (à la George Orwell as opposed to the television programme) to government.

Introducing such a law retrospectively does not mean that the government can retain the data it currently holds illegally on 3.2m people and which the Data Protection Commissioner has ordered it to delete. Also, the requirement to produce a Public Services Card when, for example, applying for a passport or a driving licence for the first time should be immediately suspended by the relevant authorities.

This brings the whole botched process back to square one with the introduction of the card having cost over €60m so far. This seems minor relative to the escalation of the costs for the National Children’s Hospital to €2bn and the National Broadband Plan to €3bn, but it is still a significant waste of taxpayers’ money – an amount that Fianna Fáil Social Protection spokesman Willie O’Dea pointed out could have sorted out an anomaly for women in the old age pension scheme.

Calls for Minister Regina Doherty to resign are premature and she was not the only Social Protection minister involved in the introduction and implementation of the Public Services Card. However, as the incumbent, she – and her department’s senior officials – have questions to answer about what has turned out to be a serious waste of taxpayers’ money.

The full report of the Data Protection Commissioner needs to be published by the government and then formally responded to by the Minister on behalf of it as quickly as possible. All of this should be considered in detail by the Public Accounts Committee who can then call on those responsible for what has transpired to account for their actions.

This may not be the end of the matter either as the Data Protection Commissioner could yet impose fines on State agencies as a result of her report’s findings – which would ultimately be borne by taxpayers – and she will also be examining the data processing side of the MyGovID initiative to streamline citizens’ access to government services. In the meantime, it is possible that people could take a case against the government if they felt any of their data was abused in the context of being forced to use a Public Services Card other than for the legal purpose it was introduced for.