State watchdog seeks answers on legality of Public Services Card

The government claims the card is "mandatory" but not "compulsory"

The State’s data protection watchdog has warned the government that there is a need for up-to-date, clear and detailed information about the controversial Public Services Card.

In a statement, the Data Protection Commissioner said the government needs to provide clarity regarding the legal basis for the card’s rollout – and claims that it is a mandatory requirement in order to access basic public services.

Commissioner Helen Dixon also warned that the public needs to know what personal information is being collected, who it is being shared with and for what purpose.

The intervention comes after the Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty claimed the card is not a “compulsory” requirement for Irish citizens but is “mandatory” to access State services.

Minister Doherty was speaking after a woman in her 70s was refused her State pension because she did not want to sign up for the card.

Mangling language

This morning, Minister Doherty was accused of “mangling language” regarding the card.

Speaking on High Noon, Trinity professor Dr Eoin O’Dell said: "What the Minister said was that it wasn't mandatory but it was compulsory, or perhaps the other way - which I think is an extraordinary piece of Kafkaesque, almost George W Bush-esque mangling of language.

"We don't know whether it's compulsory, we don't know whether it's mandatory - it demonstrates that we haven't had a proper discussion."

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has also written to the government outlining its concerns over the card.

The group is one of a number of organisations to express concern that the government is attempting to introduce a "national identity card by stealth" - without any public debate or scrutiny. 

Public confidence

In her statement, Ms Dixon warned that up-to-date and clear information is not simply a transparency requirement but also “in the interests of maintaining public confidence in the system.”

She noted that she had already highlighted her concerns over the card in her 2016 annual report and pointed to a 2015 report from the State’s Comptroller and Auditor General which found that there was “no single business case document” for its introduction.

Frequently Asked Questions

Ms Dixon called on the Department of Social Protection to publish a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) to full clarify “all of the arrangements, procedures and legislative provisions” relating to the card.

She said the questions had already been sent to the department – adding that it had agreed to answer and publish them.

The list of questions includes:

  • How does the Social Welfare Act legislation which the government used to introduce the card provide a “robust legal basis” for the plans to expand it as a mandatory requirement to access other State services.
  • How is the personal information collected as part of the issuing of the card being secured?
  • Who can access that information?
  • How did the department’s ‘Safe 2’ identity verification process interact with the government’s online identification system, MyGovID?
  • How did Safe 2 interact with the General Scheme of the Data Sharing and Governance Bill?

Ms Dixon said she is continuing to assess these matters as they progress – adding that she expects the department to publish a response to her questions “imminently.”

Public Services Card

The Public Services Card is capable of containing detailed biological data including facial recognition, fingerprints and eye scans.

The contract to provide the cards was awarded to a private company, Biometric Card Services. The state will reportedly receive a discount on that deal if 3 million identity cards are issued by the end of this year.

Approximately 2.75 million have been issued to date.