I know I’m in a minority of one in my house. My wife thinks most of social media is a scourge, because it’s a potential invader of privacy, and she is absolutely convinced that my attitude to the whole subject suggests that I’m bonkers (actually, there’s a few subjects that have convinced her over the years that I’m not playing with a full deck, but that’s another story.)
For example, I’ve always believed that one of the great things about having a smartphone is that if you get lost, people have a better chance of finding you. I love the idea that if you’re on Facebook, you’re always getting messages about things you’re interested in, because the evil geniuses behind it have developed these algorithms that get to know you and send advertising in your direction.
My missus hates all that. She sees it as snooping and intrusive, to the point of being dangerous. And so, it seems, do most people.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the idea that everyone should have a right to protect their privacy to whatever extent that want to, and I’d be totally opposed to any
notion that would allow people’s vulnerabilities to be exploited for any kind of commercial purposes. And I’ve had good reason to know that there are real dangers in situations where personal and properly private data isn’t appropriately protected. I work in a world where we have to safeguard people’s privacy when they ask us to, and that’s absolutely as it should be.
But here’s the thing. We don’t live in a totalitarian, autocratic state. The State doesn’t snoop on us to oppress us, or silence us, or make us afraid to express an opinion. Which is why I really haven’t the foggiest why there are so many people up in arms about the processes behind a public services card (PSC), and why there are so many conspiracy theories about the PSC as a first step in the road to a national identity card.
Again, don’t get me wrong.
There are many aspects of public service in Ireland that are inefficient, more than a few that are incompetent, and some that can be vindictive (exactly the same thing can be said about aspects of the private sector, by the way.) Whatever about the vindictiveness, one of the necessary steps towards a more efficient, more competent, and more responsive public service is the development of a seamless public service card.
I have one. I always had a PPS number, of course, but I never had a card until my 66th birthday. Then I went through a very simple process that involved going into an office, having my photograph taken, and producing a couple of documents that proved I was who I said I was, was born when I said I was born, and lived where I said I did.
In return for taking a half an hour out of my life, the good people (and they were very nice people, in the office I went to) sent me a card that is always in my wallet. It’s not, I have to admit, a very becoming photograph that they’ve managed to get on to it. Bleary-eyed and cranky looking I am (yes, I agree, not me at all.) But because of my advancing years, I only have to wave this card and it will pay for any bus, Luas, Dart or train journey I want to make (I’ve decided I’m not going to use it much while I’m still earning a salary, but the State has told me I’m welcome to, any time I want to.) There is some data embedded in the chip on the card which means that the State, in addition to knowing everything there is to know about me as a participant in the social welfare system, also knows all there is to know about my tax status, my age, and my address.
I admit I was really worried when I got the card about one aspect of it. It expires. It doesn’t just expire, but it expires when (in my head anyway) I’m still a relative youngster. What do they know, I wondered? What aren’t they telling me? But it transpired they don’t know when I’m going to kick the bucket. All the cards are renewed every seven years. So the card doesn’t tell them I have a prescribed date with the Grim Reaper. It also doesn’t tell them what political party I vote for, what secret society I’m a member of, what my religion is, what books I read or what telly I watch (and I don’t want them to know I’m interrupting the writing of this column to watch Strictly Come Dancing: The Results.) If the political or state system was interested in that kind of stuff about any of us, there would be reason to worry. But actually, the state thinks we’re even more boring than we are. All they want is some basic facts.
I wouldn’t mind at all if the information embedded in the little chip on the card added a few more facts. Like, say, whether my car was taxed, or my insurance was up to date, or I had an appropriate driver’s licence. I have to carry all those things in my car anyway, so surely it makes sense that they’re in my wallet? And why wouldn’t it make sense for the card to show any entitlements I might have — how many children qualify for child benefit, are my kids entitled to school transport, that sort of thing?
But clearly, the Data Protection Commissioner has a different view. That’s why she (her name is Helen Dixon) has obliged the Department of Social Protection to answer a sweeping set of questions about the public service card. In a statement, she said it was perfectly valid for government to choose ways of authenticating the identity of people using state services, but she wanted extra clarity on how it’s underpinned by law, what data is being collected, for what purpose, and with whom data may be shared.
In response the department has issued a really detailed, thorough (and, to be honest, boring) account of its stewardship. It doesn’t, of course, address the issue of a national identity card, because that’s not what the public service card is. But I would imagine any open-minded citizen would rest easy in his or her bed after reading 73 pages of how and why the system keeps basic information about us, and shares it as appropriate.
Conspiracy theorists, of course, never rest easy in their beds. To them, this is a case of Big Brother, or maybe Big Sister since the minister’s name is Regina. They’re convinced it’s all a sinister plot.
It isn’t. It’s the way to better, and more efficiently delivered, services. To make it happen, we need to get over ourselves.
The State doesn’t snoop on us to oppress us, or silence us, or make us afraid to express an opinion