Postcode privacy ’solutions’ promised

The controversial new postcode system will not be introduced until "satisfactory solutions" are put in place to address "serious concerns", the Data Protection Commissioner has confirmed.

The Eircode system, due to be introduced next year, will give a unique identifying code to every address in the country, despite long-expressed objections by the Data Protection Commissioner.

In 2006, Billy Hawkes, who stepped down as Data Protection Commissioner last September, advised the board formed to consider the feasibility, design and implementation the system that the postcode should identify areas rather than individual addresses.

“A postcode model which provided, in most cases, a 1 to 1 match between a postcode and a dwelling would raise significant privacy/data protection issues. It is a model I would have serious reservations about, if it were to be put forward as a formal policy proposal.

“In expressing such reservations, I would have regard to issues such as the potential for ready identification of sensitive information about individuals where postcodes were used for purposes other than mail delivery,” Mr Hawkes wrote in a submission to the National Postcode Project Board.

Mr Hawkes told the board — which was chaired by John Tierney, now Managing Director of Irish Water — that a postcode that would identify an area normally including 20 — 50 dwellings should not give rise to privacy or data protection issues.

The Data Protection Commissioner’s 2013 Annual Report, issued last May, took note of Eircode’s decision to issue a unique identifying code to each address.

“In essence the unique seven character postcode goes beyond what an “address” is because, through the use of modern technology and “Big Data“, it can be easily assimilated into any sort of electronic device or dataset which could in turn be used for any purpose, ranging from State services to commercial exploitation,” the report read.

“This serious concern has since turned into a reality with the Minister’s announcement on the 8th of October 2013 that Cabinet had agreed to the rollout of the unique seven digit character code to every letter box in the State by 2015… This Office is unaware as to how this consortium in conjunction with the Department will ensure that the individual citizen’s fundamental right to data protection (and Privacy) will be safeguarded into the future by the use of this postcode,” the report stated.

A spokesperson for the Data Protection Commissioner said it has engaged with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in light of the fact that Eircode will constitute personal data for the purposes of the Data Protection Acts and will therefore be subject to the protections and restrictions in those Acts.

“It is the understanding of this office that the code will not be introduced until satisfactory solutions to address the data protection elements of the project have been put in place,” a spokesperson for the Data Protection Commissioner.

A Department spokesperson said it has engaged with the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner on the introduction of Eircodes.

“The necessary protections will operate around the use of Eircodes to ensure that data protection legislation is complied with. Holders of personal data are bound by Data Protection legislation on how they store and use this data, and the introduction of Eircodes will not alter this obligation,” the spokesperson said.

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