Department behind Public Services Card insists it does not track biometric data

Department behind Public Services Card insists it does not track biometric data

Biometrics relate to data which can identify a person by their physiological characteristics, such as a photo or a fingerprint. Every Public Services Card contains the photograph of the individual in question.

The head of the department behind the controversial Public Services Card (PSC) has insisted his department does not track biometric data ahead of the publication of a report on the matter.

Secretary general of the Department of Social Protection John McKeon told the Public Accounts Committee “there is no biometric information on the card, we don’t track biometric information”.

Biometrics relate to data which can identify a person by their physiological characteristics, such as a photo or a fingerprint. Every Public Services Card contains the photograph of the individual in question.

Under GDPR, biometrics can only be processed in order to identify people if there is a specific legal basis in place to that end.

The Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) first initiated an investigation into the biometric nature or otherwise of the card in late 2017, and had been expected to publish that report before the end of 2019.

However, the report was delayed by a legal challenge at the time by the department against separate findings of the Data Protection Commissioner that the Public Services Card is illegal in all cases other than that relating to welfare payments.

That case finally settled in December of last year, with the department admitting the card can no longer be made mandatory in order to access public services.

Should the biometrics investigation find against the card, the legality of its very existence would likely be called into question once more.

Sources have indicated the separate biometric investigation is now finally close to completion.

Asked at PAC on Thursday when that report was likely to be completed, Mr McKeon said he hoped it would be soon, “but the DPC is very busy as you know”.

He said to the best of his knowledge, his department had not yet seen a draft of the report, but later acknowledged the DPC had called to the department’s Dublin office in March of this year to evaluate its PSC-related processes and that the department had subsequently received and responded to a statement of issues concerning the PSC compiled by the DPC in August.

He admitted the investigation was well-advanced and that the issuance of a final report is the next step.

“That is my understanding, yes,” he said.

Asked by Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy whether the report would likely be delivered before Christmas, Mr McKeon said: “I honestly don’t know, the DPC knows.”

“It is important that things are clarified, and that if there are questions we are entitled to answer them,” he said.

Asked by Ms Murphy what his department’s plans were should the findings of the biometrics report prove to be adverse, Mr McKeon appeared to pre-empt the investigation’s findings, insisting his department never tracks such data.

“We generate it from a photo, it’s stored on the department’s system,” he said.

Asked why the DPC had chosen to investigate the matter then, Mr McKeon replied: “You’d have to ask them, they’d have to answer that”.

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