Alternative to citizen tagging seems worse

IN a world where the idea of privacy is almost as quaint as a pony-and-trap jaunt from The Quiet Man, it may seem pointless to express concern over the announcement, yesterday, by Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty, that a person must have a public services card if they want to use the services provided by her department. 

Though acknowledging that this edict does not have the force of law, Ms Doherty added that other government departments will, in time, make a card mandatory, if services are sought.

This sleight-of-hand introduction of national identity cards may not mean they are a legal requirement, yet. But, as per the woman in her 70s who was denied her pension entitlements because she declined to register for a card, abstention carries a cost. Whether this bureaucratic compunction can withstand an almost inevitable court challenge remains to be seen.

In any event, the lively cob that swung John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara through Connemara, all those years ago, has well and truly bolted. The project seems so far advanced that it has achieved an unstoppable momentum. More than half the population — 2.75m people — has a card and the Department of Social Protection hopes to have issued 3m cards before the end of the year, an objective that has as much to do with contractual obligations and the avoidance of financial penalties as it has to do with bolstering national security. That the department has issued around 50,000 cards a month this year — 2,000 or so every working day — hardly suggests the kind of rigorous screening that might confound determined, vaguely imaginative criminals. This rate of confirmation points to one of the most worrying aspects of a scheme like this — its integrity. Unfortunately, the State has a distressingly porous record in data protection and must accept a new level of responsibility in this area.

These issues are at the heart of the EU Commission’s data-protection proposals, which come into force early next year. The objective is to standardise data-protection rights across the EU, regardless of where data is processed. That idea is easy to express, but it represent a significant challenge for public service providers and security services.

It may seem naive to suggest a mandatory system of
digital alerts, so that anyone with a card, unless in exceptional circumstances, would automatically, and to mirror Ms Doherty’s take-it-or-leave-it fiat, be notified electronically anytime their personal data is accessed. After all, in a democracy, compunction works both ways and, in terms of softwear design, establishing this citizen reassurance would be child’s play.

The spectre of Brexit, and the inevitability of a border of one kind of another on this island, looms over the whole process, as does the prospect of an electronic border everywhere.

Just as Canute could not stop the tide, this citizen-tagging seems an inevitable advance of state power over the individual. That may seem, if you are of a certain disposition, another example of Big Brother’s controlling hand intruding in your life, but the alternative seems even worse.


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