The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social & Family Affairs recently published its first report on social welfare fraud, no doubt a pressing issue in light of the State’s financial predicament and the increasing numbers requiring social welfare.
There appears to have been little comment in relation to the this suprising recommendation of the Joint Committee – a recommendation which would likely be highly controversial in jurisdictions similar to our own.
It is the view of the Committee that the development of an integrated services card is long overdue and that its development should be fast tracked as a priority measure to combat fraud and to improve service efficiency. To this end, the Committee believes that biometric information should be incorporated into the public services card in order to eliminate the possibility of fraud and to facilitate this card becoming a national identity card. The Committee supports the introduction of a national identity card and believes that it is fundamental that the public services card which is currently in development be designed in such a way that it will later be able to incorporate data from other government departments and agencies.
Not only a national ID card, but a biometric one at that. Indeed, the Department of Social Welfare and Family Affairs has, the Joint Committee reports, already “developed the specifications for a Public Service Card (PSC). The specification includes a photograph and signature as identification mechanisms. The PSC is designed to interact with public services in general and to authenticate individuals.”
In reality, of course, the PSC would merely be the physical manifestation of what has already become a de facto national ID system: the PPS number – an epitome of function creep if ever there were. It is clear from the Social Welfare Acts and the PPSN code of practice that a PPS number can be requested or used only by specified public bodies or persons authorised by those bodies to act on their behalf. Indeed, it is an offence to request or hold a PPS number without the requisite legal authority.
Section 2(1) of the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 further requires that personal data is fairly obtained and processed and it is clear from guidance published by the Data Protection Commissioner that data controllers must, pursuant to this provision, make individuals fully aware at the time of providing personal information to what use the information will be put. Section 2(1)(c)(iii) of the Data Protection Acts requires that data must not be excessive in relation to the purpose for which they are collected or further processed.
Anecdotal evidence would suggest that these legal provisions and the code of practice applicable to the PPS number system are not observed and there is a very low level of awareness as to the restrictions on the use of PPS numbers and the existence of the offence of requesting a PPS number without proper authority.
A particularly egregious example is the website of the Public Appointments Service (www.publicjobs.ie), which requires citizens who wish to register for that website to supply their PPS number when completing the registration form. It is inconceivable that the Public Appointments Service requires a PPS number to complete this transaction.
The report shows no evidence of having considered the human rights or data protection implications of introducing such a system of national ID cards, not to mention the desirability of such a system and the possibility of further function creep. Such arguments have been rehearsed in detail in the UK, for example, where there exists a visceral objection to such a system of identification.
Rather, the Joint Committee report envisages a land of joined-up thinking and efficient Big Brother bureaucracy, with “[a]n integrated system using biometric data in passports, residency cards and visa applications [which] would virtually eliminate the possibility of producing fraudulent documents in benefit applications.”
Increasingly, legislation such as the Data Protection Acts is seen as a block to the introduction of certain measures (this attitude is suggested in the plenary hearings of the Joint Committee). The realpolitik of the matter suggests that it is cost issues that might prohibit or delay the introduction of national ID in Ireland, rather than any other concern.