Bartering your privacy for essential services: Ireland’s Public Services Card

Bartering your privacy for essential services: Ireland’s Public Services Card

By Elizabeth Farries, 16th April 2019

In February, DFF invited the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) to join 30 European digital rights organisations for a consultation with the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston. The Special Rapporteur is exploring the rise of the digital welfare state and its implications for poor and economically marginalised individuals for his upcoming thematic report.

Of the themes that emerged during the consultation, the trend of states mandating welfare recipients to register for biometric identification cards is particularly relevant to the ICCL’s current campaign. In Ireland, the government has been rolling out a Public Services Card (PSC), which includes biometric features and an identity registration system that is shared amongst government databases. The PSC requires individuals to register in order to access social welfare benefits to which they are legally entitled. These individuals, by virtue of the services they are accessing, tend to be poor and economically marginalised. Furthermore, their situation has been made worse by the fact that they are living in a country that has experienced austerity in recent years. Given that the PSC is compulsory, it is the position of the ICCL that the requirement that these individuals trade their personal data and associated civil and human rights (e.g. their right to privacy) in order to access social and economic benefits is unlawful.

The growth of what are broadly referred to as identity systems or national digital identity programmes is a common problem that is not restricted to Europe. The ICCL, as a member of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), stands in solidarity with our colleagues at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) who have been fighting back against the rollout of the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS). This is a system which, similar to the Irish PSC, has sought to collect and collate personal and biometric data as a condition for receiving government services. The KHRC are challenging the legality of NIIMS in Kenya’s High Court. Last week, the KHRC achieved a legal victory in the form of an interim order which effectively barred the government from making NIIMS mandatory for access to essential services until its legality has been fully evaluated by the court.

While litigation has not commenced in Ireland as of yet, Ireland’s data protection authority, the Data Protection Commission (DPC), identified the PSC as a pressing matter. The office opened a formal audit in October 2017 and have been examining the problem ever since. The ICCL has grave concerns that the DPC have not issued a decision, particularly as the government continues to roll out the PSC and mandate it for essential services. We are further concerned that while the DPC has issued an interim report, the public has not been given access to it. The DPC on Wednesday disclosed to the Justice Committee in parliament that it, in fact, does not intend to release their report. They say that while the current data protection legislative regime authorises them to do so, the previous regime is silent on the matter. The ICCL does not accept this explanation and asserts that such a lengthy and resource intensive investigation by the publicly-funded DPC warrants at the very least the complete disclosure of their findings in the public interest.

Following the DFF consultation, the ICCL and Digital Rights Ireland invited the Special Rapporteur to visit Ireland and consider the problems presented by the PSC. We are pleased that Prof. Alston has accepted our invitation in his academic capacity and will be arriving on 29 June 2019. Please watch this space as we are planning a public event, together with meetings with national human rights organisations, community interest groups and, pending their acceptance, the DPC and responsible government bodies as well.

The Irish Government have promoted the PSC saying that it facilitates ease of service access and reduces the threat of identity fraud. Rights advocates, including the ICCL, argue that the data protection risks attached to such a scheme are not necessary for, or proportionate to, these argued benefits. DFF, through their February consultation, provided an excellent platform for the Special Rapporteur to hear concerns on the PSC. We are now looking forward to continuing this conversation with Prof. Alston directly in Ireland during his upcoming visit.

About the author: Elizabeth Farries is a lawyer and the Surveillance and Human Rights Program Manager for the ICCL and INCLO. She is also an adjunct professor in the School of Law at Trinity College Dublin.