Ireland’s Public Services Card plans spark data protection controversy and ID card fears


An ID card by any other name or a valuable single digital identity to help deliver public services? The Irish Government’s Public Services Card is a data protection controversy that isn’t going away.

Not an ID card…yet

There’s a lovely line in the 1980s UK sitcom Yes Minister where the Minister is faced with the prospect of being responsible for introducing a Brussels-instigated ‘ID-card-by-any-other-name’. He’s horrified and thinks other countries in Europe will be as well, only to be assured by his civil servant master Sir Humphrey:

The Germans will love it, the French will ignore it, the Irish and the Italians will too chaotic to enforce it. Only the British will resent it.

Not quite true, Sir Humphrey. Check out the Irish Government’s plans for its Public Services Card (PSC)  and a data protection controversy that should provide learnings – and warnings – for other administrations across Europe when contemplating anything that looks like an ID card.

The PSC was first trailed in 2012 as a way of to providing people over the age of 18 with a mechanism to access public services across Ireland. The front of the card holds a person’s name, photograph and signature, along with the card expiry date, while the back has the holder’s PPS number and a card number as well as a magnetic stripe to enable social welfare payments to be collected at post offices. Most of the initial 2.5 million trail recipients were people receiving benefit payments.

According to Ireland’s Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty, up to 50 public bodies can now access the data identity set on the cards. That in itself has raised some data privacy concerns, but in recent weeks, those concerns have grown as speculation mounts that the Irish Government wants to make the card compulsory.

At present, it is deemed to be “mandatory, not compulsory”.

Doherty insists that there are no plans to add more data to the card, other than:

the standard identity set that we’ve always used in the department, and that’s being rolled out between all departments, which is your date of birth, place of birth, gender, nationality, and if you have a former surname…all of that information is encrypted and no one can read that information from the card.

Nonetheless, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been forced to defend the PSC’s role, insisting that he is opposed to the idea of an ID card that citizens need to present to police or other law enforcement officials. He insisted that there are sound legislative and administrative reasons for the PSC in its current form and benefits that include:

You will have less bureaucracy, that you will have a streamlined approach for people accessing State services, to reassure people from a data protection perspective that information they have supplied will be protected…It is important to say there is a legislative basis for the card. It is there in the 2005 (Social Welfare Consolidation) Act. We are confident there is a legislative basis for it. It is not a national identity card.

But he added that he was conscious of the data protection concerns being aired, promising:

I always pay close attention to the Data Protection Commissioner has to say. I will always pay attention to what she has to say and the Government will respond to any concerns that the Data Protection Commissioner has.


That being so, he’s got something to listen to as the Irish Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has just called for greater transparency over the cards.

The Data Protection Commissioner and her staff have strongly conveyed their views on numerous occasions to the Department of Social Protection and in a number of other fora, including at Oireachtas Committee hearings, that there is a pressing need for updated, clearer and more detailed information to be communicated to the public and services users regarding the mandatory use of the Public Services Card for accessing public services.

Dixon is asking some specific questions, including:

  • How the legislative provisions set out in the relevant Social Welfare Acts provide a robust legal basis for what is now being implemented across the public sector, beyond public services provided by the Department of Social Protection?
  • How is data collected as part of the issuing of a PSC secured?
  • Who can access it?
  • How does the Safe 2 identity verification process interface with the Single Customer View & MyGovID?
  • How it will interface with the published General Scheme of the Data Sharing and Governance Bill?

So, the controversy continues, with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) stating that there are too many unanswered questions around the card. It argues:

  • that mandatory identity systems have been proven in many countries to be ineffective as a measure to combat crime and fraud.
  • that such systems have been shown to disproportionately expensive to introduce and maintain relative to any cost savings that might accrue.
  • that such systems of retention and control of sensitive personal data have also been shown to be intrusive and unsafe.
  • that, where possession or carrying of cards has become mandatory, the application of powers to produce cards has often been discriminatory and has aggravated existing inequalities.

The ICCL says that if the Irish Government plans to introduce a mandatory national identity card, or if it wishes to change an existing identity system from a voluntary to a mandatory system, then it should put such a proposal before the Oireachtas in the form of primary legislation with an open public consultation process. It warns:

We believe the extension of the requirement to use a Public Service Card to access a wider range of public services will have the effect of making the Public Service Card mandatory in every effective sense. In particular, we are concerned that making possession of a Public Service Card mandatory for persons seeking to apply for a passport or driving licence, will mean that failure or refusal to apply for Card will have the effect of excluding an individual from services which are intrinsic to the enjoyment of participative citizenship and fundamental human rights.

My take


All governments dabble in ID cards at some point – or at least attempt to. Remember, one of the most eager advocates of such a scheme in the UK was Tony Blair. Typically, particularly in the current climate, terrorism and security underpin such desires, although the argument for ID cards is more usually presented as it was this week by the Irish Communications Minister, who told the media:

The reality is, we are in a digital age. We see that in relation to the banking system where you have to have a number of forms filled out to open a bank account and we are seeing it more and more in relation in relation to other digital services. So it is in fact important that the State knows who they’re talking with, who they’re dealing with in relation to online transactions.

Well, yes, yes it is. But it’s all about sledgehammers to crack nuts as well.

The path towards ID cards is a slippery slope and everyone flagging up concerns is to be commended for doing so. It may be that there is a case and a model for the introduction of a single digital identity, but the stigma of the ‘present your documents’ mindset has a long way to go before it is overcome.

Image credit - Irish Government

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