Data chief rejects civil servant’s claim over public services card ‘hotline’

Tim Duggan tells committee that former commissioner ordered validation phone line

The Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon began  a formal investigation of the public services card project last October. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

The Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon began a formal investigation of the public services card project last October. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

The Data Protection Commissioner has denied claims by a senior civil servant driving the Government’s public services card (PSC) project that the commissioner ordered the establishment of a €3 million telephone “hotline” for people to activate their cards.

The disagreement over the comments made before the Oireachtas Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection on Thursday marks an apparent deterioration in relations between the department and the commissioner, which is continuing a formal investigation into aspects of the PSC project.

Tim Duggan, assistant secretary of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP), was among the officials who attended the committee to answer questions about the €60 million project.

In relation to the hotline, established to help activate public services cards at the start of the project (between 2009 and 2012), Mr Duggan said “the then data protection commissioner, having looked at the project, felt that as an additional safeguard that when public service cards are actually posted to individuals, that it would be an additional protection in his view if people were to phone back in that they got the card - and he asked us to put that process in place”.

He said the department “wasn’t convinced that this was a necessary safeguard”.

“But, as the data protection commissioner of the time requested it, the department put it in place,” he said.

Asked about Mr Duggan’s comments, the commissioner said in a statement: “In the interests of clarity and accuracy, the DPC can categorically state that no such request specifying that a hotline for the activation of PSC cards be established was made by this office to the DEASP.”

The office said it had “no such record of any request, instruction or requirement to DEASP issuing in relation to the activation of cards in this manner”.

“Nor is any member of staff that served at the office in the time-span from 2008-2013 aware of any such requirement issuing.”

Sought clarity

The statement added that in case the DPC had “a deficit in its records”, it had sought clarity on Thursday “of the basis for Mr Duggan’s comments”.

“The department has confirmed to the DPC, that it has no record of any correspondence from the DPC requesting/asking that this hotline be put in place,” the statement said.

A number of meetings had taken place over the period 2008-2013 between the commissioner’s office and the department.

The office’s notes of meetings with the department during this period had been checked and none contained “any reference to the activation of cards via a hotline”, the commissioner said.

The statement went on to say the department had advised it on Friday that the former data protection commissioner, Billy Hawkes, “would be able to validate that such a direction issued from his office”.

“The DPC has contacted Mr Hawkes today and he recollects no such request/requirement issuing,” it said.

“Furthermore, Mr Hawkes makes the general point that any government department incurring considerable expenditure might be expected to have asked for such a direction in writing and there is no evidence of any written direction having been sought or issued.”

Formal investigation

The commissioner, Helen Dixon, began a formal investigation of the card project last October, after the department published responses to a series of questions her office had asked it to answer about the public services card and related matters.

The department said: “The Department maintains the position made by Mr Duggan at the Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection yesterday. We have no further comment to make.”

Some 3.14 million of the cards had been issued as of this week, including renewals, and about 2.65 million people in the State have been issued with one. Mr Duggan told the committee on Thursday it was not a national ID card and was never intended to be such.