Data commissioner probes council workers’ access to welfare records

An investigation is under way into the access local authority workers have to people’s sensitive social welfare information.

There is also growing concern about the lack of oversight of those who can get at this data and the amount of staff who can call up an individual’s file.

The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ODPC) has identified eight bodies which enjoy access to the Department of Social Protection’s database.

These agencies, mostly local authorities, are the subject of on-site inspections by the ODPC. The move was triggered after the ODPC conducted a broad audit of the department’s database, Infosys, in 2011. This highlighted concerns about the access agencies are given to social welfare records and the limited guidance on when files should be made available.

As a result eight organisations have been targeted to identify any abuse of the system.

Thirty county councils can use the database, with the CSO, the Employment Rights Authority, the HSE, and the Donegal Integrated Service Delivery organisation.

Recently, the ODPC insisted that fingerprint or palm print recognition be required by staff who wanted to access personal details used to chase the non-payment of the household charge. This means any use of a person’s private information will be monitored and tracked.

Already this year three insurance companies — FBD, Zurich, and Travelers — pleaded guilty to 10 sample charges under the Data Protection Act after they illegally sought access to private welfare records.

Up to 80 people had information such as employment histories, claims data, and PPS numbers illegally breached.

The department said that access to Infosys was given to bodies if it was deemed appropriate and the agencies complied with the rules governing personal data.

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