Monday, March 27, 2006

Dolores McNamara update: Social Welfare and Revenue snoops receive slap on wrist

The Sunday Times reports that one hundred officials who deliberately and consciously set out to snoop on the affairs of a private individual will escape with nothing more than a slap on the wrist:
MORE than 70 officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs who breached the confidentiality of Dolores McNamara, the EuroMillions winner, when they accessed her files have been given a warning about their behaviour.


Officials at the department examined 106 cases where its staff logged onto McNamara’s records in the days after her record €115m jackpot win last July. It found that 72 of them had no reason to call up her details and, by doing so, breached department rules designed to protect the privacy of personal records.

The offending civil servants have been sent a formal letter pointing out that they are only supposed to consult such information as part of their assigned duties. They have also been warned that they will face disciplinary action, up to dismissal, should they ignore this advice.

A spokeswoman for the department said it was still looking into a further 19 cases where staff are believed to have wrongly accessed McNamara’s records.


The accessing of the files was revealed in The Sunday Times last September after details from McNamara’s tax and welfare records appeared in another newspaper. It claimed, wrongly, that the lottery winner was being investigated for welfare fraud and alleged she had been claiming payments while working.

The reports, which included dates, suggested the information could only have come from somebody close to McNamara or from people familiar with her records.

Under set procedures, staff are only supposed to access people’s records when they have a genuine business reason for doing so. In this case, only 34 employees were able to provide a reasonable explanation for examining the files, which included private welfare and benefits details.


The Irish Council of Civil Liberties also welcomed the outcome of the investigation. Malachy Murphy, its co-chairman, said: “Some people might say the civil servants got away lightly here, but we would respect the fact that the department has set disciplinary procedures and has to issue warnings to people, before going any further.”

He raised concerns, however, about the high number of staff who were able to call up McNamara’s records in the first place. “This case raises serious questions about the computer systems in use in government departments. It appears that excessive numbers of people are able to access detailed personal files and maybe this shouldn’t be the case.”


Earlier this year the Revenue Commissioners found that 28 of its staff looked up McNamara’s tax records after her win, even though they also had no reason for doing so. Thirty-two staff were originally under suspicion for accessing the files, but four were found to have valid reasons for doing so.
More on the Revenue invasion of privacy here.

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