A strange tale of a weird idea

POD: A database of Ireland's children

In Jan 2015, parents began to get letters from the Department of Education home from their children's primary schools. The Department was taking their children's data from the schools, to build a national database. That data included racial data, data relating to special needs, religion, and even data on children's psychological assessments. The data would be kept for an indefinite period, but not for less than their kid's 30th birthday. Anyone who objected would have their child's education defunded. Here's what happened when it was pointed out this plan clashed with Data Protection law.

First the Minister asserted that the plan had already been approved by the Data Protection Commissioner.

THE COMMISSIONER SAW THINGS HER OWN WAY

She pointed out that she has no power to "pre-approve" projects. To do so would compromise EU citizens' rights to an Independent investigation if they subsequently complained about the project.

The Minister then pooh-poohed any possibility of change.

The Minister reconsiders (again)

But as the investigation ground on, the Minister's certainty about her own Civil Servants' plans seemed to drain away. By 3rd March, she seemed to have forgotten she'd decided holding data until 30th birthdays was reasonable. It was back "under consideration".

And the retention period wasn't the only topic that saw the Department of Education contradict themselves. They had also provided a list of racial categories that made it impossible for any non-white child to be classed as Irish.

Challenged on making Irishness an exclusively white identity, in 2014 they asserted they'd taken the categories straight from the CSO Census

When it was pointed out that the CSO has plenty of non-white Irish racial identification options, they grudgingly issued a non-apology.

Asked what statutory power the Minister for Education had to defund children's education if their parents objected to her Data Plans, the Minister invoked Section 12 of the 1998 Education Act. This is a simply a general clause allowing the Minister to set reasonable criteria for schools funding.

And, although the Department were threatening schools with defunding, they certainly weren't offering the School Management any indemnity if complying with the Department's demands actually resulted in the school management being found guilty of a criminal breach of the Data Protection Acts.

Secrecy and Panic

By now, requests for historical documents from 2013 under FOI to verify the Minister's claim that the POD plan had been approved by the Data Protection Commissioner were being refused as being contrary to the public interest.

You don't say.

The deadline for schools to comply with the Department's POD demands was the End of March. After that, any schools not complying were threatened with defunding. But, by the end of March, only 2,400 of the State's 3,300 primary schools had transferred pupil data to the Department's POD system. The Minister for Education faced blocking funding for the education of more than a quarter of Ireland's kids. And so the Department blinked.

The Dept issued a message to all Primary schools, making emergency changes to POD. They abandoned the demand for special needs and psychological assessment data.

...and changed the racial categories....

.... and then finally admitted they were going to have to scrap and replace the entire legal basis of POD, the Jan 2014 circular.

That only left the Department's demand that they could hold citizen's data indefinitely. A week later that fell too.

From indefinite retention to having it wiped when they turn 19.

Uh-huh. No changes?

To recap.

The Department of Education circulated its new replacement POD Circular to "partners" for consultation. They didn't show it to the parents who's spotted what was wrong with the first one. This proved an error.

Over summer 2015, the Department passed new laws and issued new circulars. Surely, now, the POD was legal?

Next: POD, Year II

In which it gets worse for Government database owners

Credits: Important questions asked by parents across the country. FAQ re POD from the Department of Education and skills website. Excerpts of reports from Irish Times, TheJournal.ie Answers to Parliamentary Questions asked by Catherine Murphy TD Dáil record made usable by kildarestreet.com

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