Sunday, March 18, 2012
Data Protection - Letter to TDs
My letter sent to my constituency TDs Sean Sherlock (LAB, Minister for Research and Innovation), Dave Stanton (FG), and Tom Barry (FG) today.
As my constituency representatives in government, I would like to register with you my abhorrence of the Minister for the Environment's proposals to cross-reference data from the ESB in order to prosecute his agenda on property tax. I have written to you Dave and Tom before about my concerns on the property tax itself and its equity - this specific concern is about information, and data protection.
Data protection is there for a reason. It is designed to protect citizens against improper or unauthorised access to personal data, or access to personal data that that citizen has not acceded to. It is not some abstract European imposition, nor a seemingly unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Minister Hogan's dismissive and sarcastic reference to the commissioner (with whom, he said, he was "getting on exceptionally well") was an appalling indictment on his respect for, and ignorance of, the importance of the office. His admission shortly after in the same interview earlier today that he would turn to legislation should it be needed to access the data was an acknowledgement of the true state of the Commissioner's position. Legislating to access this data would be a grave and most likely unconstitutional step.
I am copying you Minister Sherlock not just because you are one of my representatives in government, but because there are ramifications in data protection far beyond simple property tax that impact your ministerial brief. If we are to undermine the authority of the data protection commissioner for so coarse and short-sighted a reason as tax collection, where next do we arbitrarily attack the principle of data protection? What about data based businesses, intellectual property, software, and business intelligence? What about businesses built on data monetization like Google and Facebook, are they next to be compromised? What about the new up and coming technology companies who rely on the protections afforded citizens by data protection in order to support these businesses? We are fond these days of the phrase "moral hazard" - while we are bending over backwards for the Germans in order to avoid one in Europe, we are seemingly blithe to its occurrence at home. Hypocrisy!
A final point in my argument - I don't believe that legislation to circumvent the power of the data protection commissioner would be constitutionally valid, as it would be in breach of a right to privacy, and possibly other rights. It would almost certainly fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights, and in the absence of a derogation from the appropriate provisions, most likely in breach of European Law as well. At least we have Europe to protect us!
Minister Hogan is a coarse, heavy handed, indelicate and ignorant legislator. He needs to learn about law, about rights, and about his duty to the people of Ireland. There are limits to our patience - I have spoken to friends about this, who all agree; other Fine Gael voters are similarly astonished at his apparent disconnection from his voting constituency. I will continue to broadcast my concerns on social media, and try to build awareness for the perils of the Minister's proposed action. Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote just after the French Revolution about Democracy described what he called the "Tyranny of the Majority" - perhaps this is what he meant. Michael McDowell acted in a similarly dismissive way when as Minister for Justice he convicted Frank Connolly in the eyes of Chuck Feeney even though the Judiciary had seen fit to acquit him, because it was politically expedient for him to do so. More generally, it was political expediency that got us into the trouble our country is in right now - more than anything we need leadership - political leadership, moral leadership, and social leadership.
I have registered for and paid my property tax because it is the law, and therefore my duty as a citizen. I think it has been handled cack-handedly from the start, and continues to be deployed without political sensitivity, without planning, and without wit. Whatever the future holds for the property tax, let us not allow this debacle to further undermine the democratic structures of this country, and data protection as an important pillar of our personal rights.