Data watchdog 'doubts' legality of welfare officers collecting information at airports

The Data Protection Commission "can't see" how social welfare inspectors have the power to collect information from passengers who are leaving the country.
Data watchdog 'doubts' legality of welfare officers collecting information at airports

The Data Protection Commission has confirmed all customers on some flights in recent months have been asked for their details. File Picture: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

The Data Protection Commissioner has questioned the legality of how the Department of Social Protection is gathering information at the country's ports and airports.

After considering answers to questions Helen Dixon put to the department in the wake of the Pandemic Unemployment Payments controversy, she has now had to demand even more answers to more questions.

Her officials approached welfare chiefs for more details of their operations at Dublin Airport after it emerged passenger details were being accessed by benefits inspectors.

As a result of those checks, more than 2,500 PUP recipients had their payments stopped, of which 85 may now have to have them reinstated.

The department has said the powers of welfare inspectors to do what they have been doing are backed by law.

Section 250 (16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by Section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012 gives powers to social welfare inspectors where they have “reasonable grounds to believe there has been a contravention” of the social welfare act to “question and make enquiries of a person who is a passenger”.

Deputy Data Protection Commissioner Graham Doyel said: “The Department of Social Protection has confirmed that, in respect of certain flights over the last number of months, all customers boarding the flight were, and continue to be, asked for their details, i.e. name, address and PPSN.

“The DPC cannot see how this practice of collecting information from all passengers simply on the basis they are travelling to a certain destination conforms with the powers of inspectors under the 2005 Act to act and question (and therefore collect data from) a passenger where they have reasonable grounds to believe there has been a contravention.

“On that basis, the DPC has serious doubts about the lawfulness of the collection and processing of personal data in this context and is now following the matter up with the DEASP as this practice continues today.

“Further, the DPC has received queries from a number of individuals seeking clarity as to whether the DEASP is sourcing information on prospective passengers from other sources that allow a targeting of individuals for payment cancellation without any interaction with an inspector at a port or airport.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Protection said: “In the last few days, the DPC has raised a number of queries with the Department of Social Protection regarding the work being done by social welfare inspectors in airports and ports in recent months.

“The Department has comprehensively responded to these queries. A further query was raised with the Department this morning which will be responded to later on today.

“The concerns now being raised by Deputy Commissioner Doyle have not been brought to the attention of the Department.

“At all times in carrying out their duties, social welfare inspectors operate within their statutory powers. The Department believes that the checks being done by inspectors in ports and airports have a firm legal basis.”

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