Are we the wild west of data protection?

Are we the wild west of data protection?
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has ruled the public services card is being used illegally.

By their actions shall we know them. The handling by the Government of the public service card (PSC) saga speaks volumes for how it governs.

Right now the whole issue is of far greater importance than whether or not there were attempts to surreptitiously introduce a national identity card.

Of far greater interest is the response to the Data Protection Commissioner’s ruling that the card was being used illegally. Last month the DPC Helen Dixon issued a release after a two year investigation into how the card had been rolled out.

The commissioner ruled that the Department of Social Protection must delete the 3.2m historical records it maintained on card holders and that the PSC can no longer be used for state services outside the department. It was already in use for grant and passport applications and was envisaged to be rolled out even further.

The ruling was a serious blow to the Government. Around €60m had been spent rolling out the card despite continual warnings that there were legal issues around it.

A small number of observers from civil liberties groups, the legal world and a few journalists who had followed the saga expressed themselves unsurprised at the outcome.

To them it had long been obvious that State agencies were acting in a highly questionable manner in using the card.

They had also posited the theory that the Government appeared to be surreptitiously introducing a national identity card.

There were valid reasons for such fears. In 2016 the Minister for Finance Pascal Donohue stated when signing up for the card himself that the “end goal” was to cover the entire adult population.

Some in authority did see problems ahead. In early 2018, the Department of Transport instructed the Road Safety Authority to stop using the PSC as a requirement in driver licence applications.

So the ruling by Ms Dixon couldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody, and particularly not the Minister for Social Protection, Regina Doherty. Twelve months ago she had been furnished with a draft copy of the report. She knew since then what was coming.

Fast forward to this week’s response. Ms Doherty asserted that her department has the “highest respect” for the DPC and the important work they do.

Unfortunately we do not accept the findings and will challenge them.

The Government challenging an independent regulator that has conducted a two year investigation is indeed unfortunate. And it’s not just any regulator.

The DPC is charged with, among other things, protecting the public from the ruthless harvesting of data which can be a licence to print money by tech giants.

The Googles and Facebooks and all their impersonators crave every detail of personal data so they can use it to market products.

The more they know about you, the better they can tailor their pitch to you. And, to a great extent, personal marketing can morph into manipulation with ease.

We have seen this in the political sphere. Cambridge Analytica the now discredited company, was involved in voter manipulation through data mining in the US presidential election.

So personal data is gold for these corporate giants. And guess who in the world has the job of policing the data laws as operated by these transglobal entities?

Our very own Data Protection Commissioner.

The success in attracting foreign direct investment to this country has seen Google and its fellows locate their European HQs here and with that comes the responsibility for policing them.

For instance the Irish DPC is currently engaged in an investigation into whether Google is secretly supplying users’ data to advertisers.

This is serious stuff on a global scale. During the week, the Financial Times ran a story on the investigation on its front page.

So the responsibility vested in the Data Protection Commissioner in this country is hugely out of proportion to the size of the country.

One might imagine that in such a context the Government would consider long and hard before attempting to undermine the result of a two-year investigation by Ms Dixon and her team.

Are we the wild west of data protection?

What message does that send to our friends in the upper echelons of the tech giants? Listen guys, this homely and welcoming little island isn’t just extremely tax-friendly, but the Government has the same attitude to data protection as some of you — the less of it, the better.

Perhaps this side effect of the decision to challenge Ms Dixon didn’t even occur in Government Buildings. Perhaps they prefer to forget that at the height of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland was being described as the “wild west” of financial regulation. Could the country end up now being labelled the “wild west of data protection”?

In reality, more earthy concerns inform the decision to challenge Ms Dixon. To admit that the whole thing was an expensive and legal folly would be to present electoral fodder to the opposition.

The project involved spending €60m to, in the first instance, allegedly tackle social welfare fraud.

Successive reports from the Attorney General put welfare fraud in the region of €50m annually, accounting for around 0.25% of the welfare budget. Even with the best ID system in the world, there would be little prospect of eliminating, or even greatly reducing, that low level of fraud.

But the money was spent and it had to be justified. So the card was rolled out, further and further into the thicket of public services in order to put a better spin on the money thrown down the drain.

In all likelihood, somebody decided along the way that it would be a damn fine idea to keep rolling out all the way to a defacto national ID card. After all, any attempt to ever introduce such a card would be subject to huge controversy and probably get bogged down in the Oireachtas.

Why bother with any of that when there’s a ready made version there that needs to justify itself?

And now that the time of reckoning has come, the Government decides that the best way to extricate itself from the hole is to keep digging.

Putting the whole affair on the long finger through an appeal will most likely ensure that a result won’t be delivered until after the next election.

Any embarrassing questions on the issue can simply be answered by reference to the appeal.

As Irish Examiner reporter Cianan Brennan, who has tracked this debacle since its earliest days, pointed out on Thursday:

For whatever reason, simply acknowledging that they’ve got it wrong doesn’t seem to be an option.

Perhaps one of the bright sparks behind the current policy on the matter should take a look at what else is at stake in this attempt to undermine the Data Protection Commissioner’s investigation.

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