Data protection watchdog questions basis for airport questioning
There is no clear legal basis for social welfare inspectors questioning passengers on certain flights out of Ireland as a blanket policy, the Data Protection Commission (DPC) has warned.
The Department of Social Protection (DEASP) told the watchdog that customers boarding certain flights in recent months have been asked for details including their name, address and PPSN.
The DPC has challenged DEASP’s position that it has the power to do so under section 250 (16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012.
Deputy data protection commissioner Graham Doyle said: “The DPC cannot see how this practice of collecting information from all passengers simply on the basis they are travelling to a certain destination conforms with the powers of inspectors under the 2005 Act to act and question (and therefore collect data from) a passenger where they have reasonable grounds to believe there has been a contravention.
“On that basis, the DPC has serious doubts about the lawfulness of the collection and processing of personal data in this context and is now following the matter up with the DEASP as this practice continues today.
“Further, the DPC has received queries from a number of individuals seeking clarity as to whether the DEASP is sourcing information on prospective passengers from other sources that allow a targeting of individuals for payment cancellation without any interaction with an inspector at a port or airport.”
Legal rights organisation FLAC has raised similar concerns and has called for a full review into theactivities of social welfare inspectors at Irish airports.
Eilis Barry, chief executive of FLAC, said: “The statement of the DPC only deepens FLAC’s concerns in relation to the activities of the Department of Social Protection at airports.”
Sinéad Lucey, FLAC managing solicitor, said: “The mere presence of a person at the airport is not sufficient grounds for them to be questioned about a social welfare payment. In addition it should also be noted that anyone who is subject to such questioning has a right to fair procedures before any decision is taken by the Department on foot of such questioning.
“Any information obtained by the Department from passengers at the airport, in circumstances where social welfare inspectors have acted in excess of their powers in obtaining the information, may mean that any decision taken by the Department in relation to a person’s entitlement for social welfare on foot of receiving the information is open to challenge.”
Ms Barry said: “It is now incumbent on the minister to instigate a review into the activities of social welfare inspectors at airports and to ensure that Departmental policy properly reflects the limited powers that are available to agents of the Department at ports and airports.
“The Department should also review any cases where persons’ entitlements to social welfare payments have been suspended on foot of questioning at the airport, in circumstances where that questioning may have been conducted in a manner contrary to what is allowed under the law.”