Monday, September 26, 2005

Your personal information is for sale - Social Welfare edition

The Sunday Times reports that civil servants have been caught snooping through the social welfare files of lottery winner Dolores McNamara:
Officials at the Department of Social and Family Affairs have discovered there were up to 150 hits on McNamara’s welfare files after she scooped the EuroMillions prize. Departmental managers are now asking civil servants to explain why they opened her records.

While a small number of staff may have genuine reasons, it is believed the majority did not and could have broken data protection laws and department rules. Civil servants face disciplinary action or even criminal prosecution if they cannot show good cause for accessing the Limerick woman’s details.

The investigation was ordered after McNamara’s social welfare history was reported in detail by the media. The amount of social welfare payments she supposedly received, including specific dates, were published. The figures and dates, if correct, suggested the information could only have come from someone extremely close to her, or from someone with access to her social welfare records.
Presumably some civil servants were browsing her records for their own curiosity: but obviously some have realised that there's money to be made by selling information to the media. This isn't the first time that this has happened in Ireland, prompting the question: why should we trust the Government on data retention when they are incapable of protecting the personal information which they already have?