New Household Charge website sparks privacy debate

5 Jan 2012

A blogger has caused a major kerfuffle by pointing to privacy issues on the new Household Charge website. Environment Minister Phil Hogan has had to row in and reassure citizens the information they provide is fully secure.

However, Hogan has had to admit that the Data Protection Commissioner has indicated that there are issues in relation to the privacy statement on the website.

Minister Hogan has assured the public that these issues will be addressed immediately.

Blogger Daragh O’Brien, who specialises in information quality management, wrote a blog yesterday pointing to concerns he had about the site from a Data Protection point of view.

He pointed out that in the privacy statement there is no mention of the use of tracking cookies written by Google Analytics, which is used by millions of websites around the world. Compliance with SI336 (ePrivacy Directives) requires that cookies can only be used with consent unless the cookies are necessary for the delivery of a particular service.

O’Brien also expressed concern at the lack of clarity about who is actually governing the processing of the data.

Responding to the surge of concern in the wake of O’Brien’s blog, Minister Hogan said: I would like to reassure users of that the information they provide is fully secure.”

A statement on the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government’s website read: “The Minister also said that the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner had been in correspondence with his Department before Christmas in relation to the data sharing provisions in the Household Charge legislation. A meeting was scheduled at the time to take place in the week commencing the 9th of January. This meeting is to discuss data protection issues and to agree a protocol with the Commissioner’s Office as to the arrangements for sharing of data between relevant data holders.

“The Minister wishes to point out that no data sharing between relevant data holders will take place in advance of the protocol and the agreement of the relevant modalities with the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. The Minister further stresses that the implementation of the Household Charge can only proceed in accordance with the law as passed by the Oireachtas in the Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011. It is his intention that any access to data will be as limited as is practicably possible.”

Controversial new tax

The Department revealed that so far some 10,000 people have registered their properties and some €1m in charges have been collected so far.

The controversial household charge has sparked much debate, in particular how it will be enforced and hence the strong interest in data protection and privacy.

Last month it emerged that databases of the Revenue Commissioners, the ESB and organisations like the Private Residential Tenancies Board will be scoured to ensure that homeowners across Ireland pay the new €100 household charge.

Failure to pay the new tax will result in fines of up to €2,500.

The Revenue Commissioners, the ESB and the Private Residential Tenancies Board will pass information onto the various county councils to ensure collection.
The three different data sets will yield obvious information, such as who uses electricity, who pays stamp duty and capital gains taxes and, of course, various rental properties.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years