PSC, identity and services: a rant

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1 September 2017

Paul HearnsThere has been quite furore this week around the public services card (PSC).

There have been furious arguments back and forth about whether it is a national identity card by stealth, how and why it is accessible by various agencies and organisations and whether one will be required to physically carry it.

There are various rights groups up in arms and many concerned citizens asking whether this is some kind of big brother effort to oppress or control us.

“Online, mobile and other technologies must be used to try and deliver better, more efficient public services to the citizenry. To do so, positive identification is absolutely necessary. This system of identification must be secure, accessible, transparent and proportionate. It must also be respected by all who would use or benefit from it, by which I mean not made accessible to anyone without a compelling and necessary reason to do so”

With distinct echoes of Irish Water, this yet another good idea handled badly and communicated even worse.

And now the whole scheme like the example mentioned, is in danger of becoming so toxic as to set us back decades.

Nothing new
The reality is that nothing that is happening here is beyond what has happened before in terms of citizen information, rather it is a coordinated effort to have coordinated services in a modern context.

We all know that a growing, and yet aging, population is going to need more and more services from a government that is still cash-strapped in many areas, trying to govern a public service that is increasingly seen as faceless, and bureaucratic.

Online, mobile and other technologies must be used to try and deliver better, more efficient public services to the citizenry. To do so, positive identification is absolutely necessary. This system of identification must be secure, accessible, transparent and proportionate. It must also be respected by all who would use or benefit from it, by which I mean not made accessible to anyone without a compelling and necessary reason to do so.

A classic example of how this would benefit people is by streamlining public services to avoid having to do things such as means testing. We are a small nation with limited resources. Universal benefits are a great idea for medical care and the like, but for other things, means is a good qualifier for benefits of all sorts. To avoid having to have either costly vetting or cumbersome self-assessments with all the administration that such things bring, I have argued for years that having revenue, social protection and health service databases aligned makes sense and forms a foundation for such services. Such provisions would mean that each citizen would know exactly what they are entitled to by way of everything from tax credits to dental check-ups and eye tests. We would not need to apply for anything, it would be made available to us as we qualify or not.

Multiple identifiers
In reality, we as citizens have multiple identifiers for multiple systems which makes the delivery of services a nightmare.

A personal example I recently discovered, on being asked to produce an important document, was that my date of birth was incorrect on it. On inquiry, the level of paper documentation I now need to produce to have the record changed is, frankly, staggering. I should be able to produce my passport, with its photo and my PPS number, which is easily cross referenced and verify my identity and have the prior, authoritative document override what was obviously a transcription error.

But that is not currently possible.

While I do not discount the arguments of privacy advocates, and am mindful of the recent guidance from the data protection commissioner, Ireland needs this kind of identification system, to deliver the kinds of services we will need and demand as citizens of a developed nation in the 21st century. But it needs to be done correctly and respectfully and that is where things fall down.

The example of person’s pension being withheld because of a refusal to register for a card that people had been informed was not compulsory is an example of a good idea being implemented badly, and unfortunately all too familiar in the context in this country.

Widespread use
These kinds of systems are already in sue across Europe and the world, with Germany being a prime example.

The government and the public services already have all of the information the PSC would hold, but it is in various silos. What is the problem with either merging, or at the very least, connecting those silos to be more efficient and de-duplicated?

Well, one of the primary arguments against is misuse, and of course this is a very valid argument. From the way that Irish Water cobbled together its database to the misuse of the Garda Pulse system that was likened to a kind of blue ‘Facebook’, we all know that things can be done wrong, or things can be abused—if proper safeguards are not in place. But there are many examples from various other countries of how this can be handled, as well as technological and policy points to mitigate this. For example, only those who need to access a system can. Sounds simple, but it is an important point.

The Estonian system of public services is often held up as paragon, and with good cause.

Its e-identity card is mandatory for all citizens. From its own information site, it says:

“Unlike in many other countries, every Estonian, irrespective of their location, has a state issued digital identity. Thanks to this Estonia is years ahead of countries still trying to work out how to authenticate people without physical contact.

In Estonia, every person can provide digital signatures using their ID-card, Mobile-ID or Smart-ID, so they can safely identify themselves and use e-services.”

Citizen ownership
Estonian ministers have been known to call up their own medical records to show which clinicians have accessed them and why, to illustrate the point. While I don’t fancy seeing the medical records of any of our lot, the point is valid. Despite the level of information stored, the citizen has the power of access and control, and enjoys a transparency that would be impossible otherwise.

In the current debacle, the true value of the PSC system has been miscommunicated, or just lost amid the clamour of privacy and security concerns. And while these concerns are valid, they can be addressed through clear communication and demonstration of the various protection measures. The authorities involved have singularly failed to address this and it has resulted in yet another good idea being mired in controversy, fear and doubt.

The concern of a national ID card is unfounded. A garda on the street would have no more right to ask you for your PSC tomorrow than they would to would to ask for your tax return today.

Each citizen needs to know how their data is gathered, stored and processed, by whom and for what, irrespective of the agency or service doing it. Any change should be flagged, and the citizen notified again.

Too often these developments take place behind closed doors and without the knowledge of the citizen. However, if the direct benefits of the developments and changes are correctly communicated, then much of the current furore would never have happened. And worse, this issue now appears to be so inflated as to potentially put people off the idea entirely.

 


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