Mobile operators decline comment on CSO travel statistics plan

State body told privacy watchdog it disagreed with legal interpretation on using data

The CSO wants to use its powers under the Statistics Act to compel mobile  operators to transfer to it on an ongoing basis the details of phones or users roaming on the networks. File photograph: iStock

The CSO wants to use its powers under the Statistics Act to compel mobile operators to transfer to it on an ongoing basis the details of phones or users roaming on the networks. File photograph: iStock

 

Mobile network operators have declined to comment on a project by the Central Statistics Office which seeks to force them to hand over phone data for compiling tourism statistics.

It has emerged the State’s statistics body has been in an effective stand-off with the Data Protection Commissioner on the project for the past nine years.

The CSO wants to use its powers under the Statistics Act to compel the operators to transfer to it on an ongoing basis the details of phones or users roaming on the networks, as well as the dates and times of their calls. It also wants the details of Irish users roaming abroad.

The commissioner has told the CSO the project is “disproportionate” and that there could be adverse consequences if tourists were to find out that their movements were being tracked while on holidays here. It said the project would be a serious interference with people’s privacy rights.

Officials from the Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF), representing the electronic communications industry, held talks with the commissioner’s office and the CSO in recent years while the project was being discussed.

Tourism data

Asked for the industry’s current position on the project, a spokeswoman for TIF, an Ibec body, said it had no further comment to add to a statement issued by the statistics body.

The CSO said it was in the process of developing an “innovative technical solution” in which anonymised mobile phone location information can be used to address significant knowledge gaps in tourism data.

It was “consulting closely” with the commissioner and the mobile network operators “to ensure that we identify and meet all requirements, especially those relating to privacy”.

At the request of the commissioner’s office, the CSO carried out a privacy impact assessment to examine the potential risks of the project. Director general of the CSO Pádraig Dalton signed off on the assessment and said that in considering its relative merits and the issues and concerns identified he was satisfied it should proceed.

In correspondence to the commissioner’s office, the CSO noted it was “a highly experienced statutory body with a legislative mandate to conduct this project and it will ensure that the fundamental rights of any individual are protected”. No measures or decisions would be taken (by the CSO or any other third party ) from the data that could cause any damage or distress to any individual.

The CSO wrote to Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon in March of last year to tell her it had taken “specialist legal advice” and that its interpretation of the applicable law differed, in certain instances, from her office’s views.