Public services card: What you need to know

Card was introduced as a pilot in 2011 before being rolled out to social welfare recipients

Many campaigners and privacy law experts have objected to the card, with some questioning its legality.   Photograph: Eric Luke

Many campaigners and privacy law experts have objected to the card, with some questioning its legality. Photograph: Eric Luke


What is the public services card?
It is a Government-issued card designed to “fully authenticate your identity”. It holds a person’s name, photograph, signature and PPS number. It is required by those collecting welfare payments and replaced the social services card.

The Department of Social Protection has insisted the cards have a legal basis in the Social Welfare Acts and will lead to better and more efficient government services. It has been cited as a means to minimise instances of fraud and some 3.2 million of them have been issued. Opponents of the card have argued it is unnecessary and a crude means of gathering people’s personal data.

When did it show up?
The card was first introduced as part of a pilot project in 2011 before the process of rolling it out to all social welfare recipients began. Initially it was just required for claiming social welfare but plans later emerged for it to be needed by people applying for a passport for the first time, applying for driver theory tests and driving licences, claiming dental and optical benefits covered by PRSI and SUSI education grants.

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said the card was “mandatory but not compulsory” after a woman in her 70s revealed she had not received her pension for 18 months because she refused to register for the card. The Data Protection Commissioner later started an investigation into the card’s “potential breaches” of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

What are the major concerns about it?
A range of campaigners, including Digital Rights Ireland, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Age Action and privacy law experts have objected to the card, with some questioning its legality.

Concerns include that the PSC could be used by the State to build up a bank of information on individuals and there are fears as to what this could be used for in the future. There are fears about the potential impact of a data breach involving this material. Campaigners have said this information is accessible by many State bodies and could be vulnerable to attack unless greater protections are put in place.

What has the commissioner found?
In a nutshell, the Data Protection Commissioner’s report finds there is no basis in law for many public bodies to insist that people accessing services have the card. This does not include the Department of Social Protection, which can demand it to access payments. However, it does mean the card is not mandatory for people seeking driving licences, grants and other services. The DPC also says the department must destroy the data it has retained on applicants for the card.

What does it mean for me?
To the average service user, the implications of the decision will be limited. You can still use your PSC as proof of identity for services, and the department can still request it from those collecting welfare payments, but other State bodies will not be able to demand that you possess one.

The DPC’s report effectively says the department has misinterpreted some of the founding legislation the card operates under, and that a project which has consumed considerable political capital was built on shaky foundations. This is a problem for the Government, for the department and for public confidence in their ability to complete these kinds of projects.

What happens next?
The department may choose to publish the report by the commissioner, whose investigation into other aspects of the PSC, including photo matching, security and other issues, will continue.