Ministers have ‘solemn duty’ to protect personal data

There is a “solemn duty” on Government figures, including Justice Minister Alan Shatter, to protect personal data and not disclose it unless the person affected consents or there is a legal basis, the country’s top data protection chief has said.

Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes said that Independent TD Mick Wallace had made a complaint to his office regarding the public disclosure by Mr Shatter that he had benefited from Garda discretion when spotted driving while using a mobile phone.

Mr Hawkes said that, in general, he was empowered to make a formal finding that the law had been breached in such situations. He said while there was no sanction for that, there was “reputational damage” and that the complainant could take a civil case in the courts.

Speaking at the launch of the Data Protection Commissioner’s 2012 annual report, he said he could not comment in detail about Mr Shatter’s case until the investigation was carried out.

But he added: “I can say in general the public sector — whether that is a minister, a government department, an Gardaí or civil servants — they have a solemn duty to protect any personal data that comes into their possession and only disclose it if they have the consent of the person concerned or there is some other legal basis.”

He said that, in general, the basis for releasing such information to the public was “quite limited.” He said they include a situation, which does not arise in this case, where there is a legal obligation to disclose the information.

Otherwise, it is “largely down” to the consent of the person affected: “That is the normal situation,” he said.

He said that if Deputy Wallace made a complaint it would be “investigated fully” by assistant commissioner Tony Delaney.

Mr Hawkes said this would involve inviting the minister to comment on the allegations, and for him, ultimately, to make a decision whether or not the data protection act had been breached.

He said communication with the minister would be done by correspondence.

He said that under the act there were no sanction for any such breaches. He said the act provides a right for individuals to seek a formal decision whether or not the act was broken.

The only sanction, he said, was “reputational damage”, although he pointed out that a complainant would have a legal right to sue, by taking a civil case in the courts.


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