Minister for Education: We will forget nothing, learn nothing

About two weeks ago, as letters started to arrive home in children’s lunchboxes, parents started raising issues with the Department of Education’s project to take children’s data (racial, psychological assessment, special needs, religion, PPS number and so on) and store it until they were 30.

Here’s the post setting out the inital issues I had with the plan.

This is a long post, but it is about the future security of children’s identity. Please read it and then take a moment to do something to change this plan.

Please, contact your school and warn them about the Data Protection breaches that they could be held liable for if they comply with the Department’s demands. Then, please contact Minister Jan O’Sullivan by email [email protected] and tell her you want her to stop this project and why. Use any and all of the above points, or some of your own.

And finally, please contact the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner and let her know that you aren’t happy about the proposed creation of a slap-dash, ill considered, record of your child and you think she needs to act to stop it from happening.

Data Protection Commissioner: Not as happy as claimed

Unfortunately, the Minister has responded by denying there are any problems, saying she’d look at the retention period, then saying she’d looked at it and was sure again it was needed because the Department wanted to have ‘full maximum data’.

Minister O’Sullivan also managed to call into question independence of the new Data Protection Commissioner, by announcing “that office is satisfied with what we are doing” and “the 30th birthday is probably appropriate and it satisfies the Data Commissioner as well”.

On the face of it, the Commissioner’s regulatory role was being undermined by a Government Minister preempting the outcome of any complaint by asserting the opinion of the Commissioner before any complaint had even been ruled on.

It was reassuring to read today’s interview, therefore, with Helen Dixon, the new Data Protection Commissioner. Contrary to the Minister’s assertions earlier in the week, the Commissioner did not seem to be ‘fully satisfied’ with the Department’s plans. She said;

“it seems to be the case that there’s an inadequate explanation of why they need it and why they need to hold it for as long as they are holding it.”

(This might seem like a minor point, but in fact, in EU law, the independence of Data Protection Commissioners is considered a very Big Deal. So much so that the EU Commission has repeatedly sued member states whose Governments act to undermine that independence. After the most recent such case Commission -v- Hungary, the EU Justice Commissioner and Vice President of the Commission, Viviane Reding issued a strong warning;

The independence of national data protection authorities is the very cornerstone of guaranteeing effective data protection rights for our citizens. Lack of independence means lack of effective supervision and oversight, and a lowering of the level of data protection. The Commission has intervened three times with infringement cases against Member States to stop such incursions on the independence of data protection watchdogs. I will not hesitate to intervene again if necessary.” )

Defund your child’s education if you object

In correspondence with individual parents, the Minister’s Office and the Department have taken another tack.

The Minister is threatening to defund the education of any child whose parents object to their data being hoovered up into this database. 

Personally, I think it’s a pretty low road for the person responsible for children’s education to try to hold them to ransom for the sake of an administrative hobby horse of her Department. Here’s the Minister’s Personal Private secretary, finishing off a letter to a parent who had raised serious and detailed concerns that the entire POD database plan was illegal under Data Protection law with the most basic of coercive threats.


“If you do not consent to your child’s data being entered on POD then you should inform your school in writing that you do not wish to have your child’s information entered on POD, however from 2016/2017 this may have funding and teacher allocation implications for your school”

Similarly, when I wrote to complain, I got an even less varnished version of this threat to defund any child’s education whose parents objected to POD.

Offical's threat


Just take the data with or without consent

As if those threats weren’t objectionable enough, it turned out that the Department had come up with a fallback plan. In their FAQ to teachers, they told them that if any parent did dare to refuse to allow their children’s data to go into POD, the teachers were to ignore their data preferences and just upload it anyway.

Screw parents wishes we wanna

Retention period: Until the child is 30, and then some

Let’s go back to that retention period. It’s set out in Circular 0017/2014, which is closest thing we have to an administrative law underpinning this entire scheme. It says;

The Department will retain personal data in categories 1 and 2 for each pupil on POD for the longer of either the period up to the pupil’s 30th Birthday and subject to review thereafter or for a period of ten years since the student was last enrolled in a primary school.

As very few 20 year olds are to be found still enrolled in primary school, we can take it that the plan is to keep the data at least until the pupil is 30 and then it will be ‘subject to review thereafter’. In other words, there is no commitment to remove this data, ever.

This open-ended retention period, by the way, doesn’t meet the requirement by the Data Protection Acts for notifying the data subject how long the data will be held for or for what purpose (data subject here being parents and then, when they become adults, the pupils themselves). Certainly, any Government department whose Minister is willing to define the criteria for retention as ‘in order to ensure that we have full maximum data’ doesn’t seem like the kind of institution to wipe any data from its system voluntarily.

The Circular is also clear that all this data ‘will’, not ‘may’, be kept. This is an important point, because, under pressure from questions, the department has suggested that maybe they will think about keeping some of the data in an anonymised form after children leave school (and, more urgently, until journalists stop asking questions). But in fact, the Circular short-circuits all of that discussion.

Together, Category 1 and Category 2 data is all of the data the Department is collecting- names, PPS numbers, address, mother’s maiden name, religion, ethnicity, psychological assessments, special needs, the whole shebang- being kept until the citizen is, at the earliest, 30 years of age.

This is explicitly not anonymised or aggregated data.

Security of the data

This is going to get a little bit technical, so stick with me here. Firstly, let’s look at how schools are meant to get this spectacularly rich and sensitive dataset on the nation’s children to the Department of Education. They can fill the data in directly into the webform, which does connect with a secure HTTPS line. Unfortunately, the form won’t let them do many of the things you might expect to come up, like save an entry with only some of the required data filled in.

So, anticipating that the HTTPS option wouldn’t be too popular, the Department has come up with a plan for schools to fill in the data offline, into a Microsoft Office document, and then to encrypt that file using the same encryption system Edward Snowden used to communicate with journalists (GPG) and to then email them that encrypted file.

If you started to make a worried face in the second half of that sentence, that means you’ve probably already encountered trying to use GPG encryption. Here’s Arne Padmos, lecturer with the University of Rotterdam, giving his recent talk “Why is GPG ‘damn near unusable’?” to a group of computer security experts.

But not to worry, the Department told schools that they would produce ‘detailed instructions’ on how to use it. No training, mind, but a handy Word document they could refer to. You can read it all here. Some sample screenshots, to give you a feel for it;

Screenshots of the encryption instructions


As you can see, there is no way that this could go wrong.

Unfortunately, the Department’s focus on keeping this data encrypted in transit pays no attention to the fact that the original data file will remain unencrypted and sitting on the school computer.

Furthermore, the Department decided they would allow the POD data to be automatically copied out and synchronised with the school’s own database. So, no matter how secure the data is getting to the POD, it will then automatically, and by design, be copied out into another database that sits outside the Department’s control or audit.

This is so strange an idea, I’ll show you the bit in their documents where they chat away about it with no mention of security implications, just so you believe me.

Screenshot_2015-01-25_11_53_38So, just to keep count, the list of people with access to this data on children is now;

The Department of Education (for purposes which include statistics, but also funding of children’s education and other, non-specified uses), all the public bodies they intend to share this data with at the moment (the current non-exhaustive list is the Department of Enterprise and Employment, the Department of Social Protection, The CSO, The Child and Family Agency and, apparently, the Revenue Commissioners), everyone in any school with access to either the POD database or their own internal database and any contractors who provide the technical support for those databases.

I could go on and on, but this post is already too long to expect anyone to have reached the bottom here.

I could point out that holding a permanent record that doesn’t allow families and children to declare their ethnicity to be Black and Irish is insulting and backward. I could point out that having a free text Notes field where school staff can write anything they want about a pupil and have it stored, for reference, until that pupil is an adult active in society is a invitation for abuse. The threat of something going on a child’s Permanent Record has never been so real.

You can stop this

I think the main point is clear. This project is a mess. It must not go on as it is. But the Minister and her Department have made clear that they will not budge unless forced to do so.

So, please, contact your school and warn them about the Data Protection breaches that they could be held liable for if they comply with the Department’s demands. Then, please contact Minister Jan O’Sullivan by email [email protected] and tell her you want her to stop this project and why. Use any and all of the above points, or some of your own.

And finally, please contact the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner and let her know that you aren’t happy about the proposed creation of a slap-dash, ill considered, record of your child and you think she needs to act to stop it from happening.


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  • […] “About two weeks ago, as letters started to arrive home in children’s lunchboxes, parents started raising issues with the Department of Education’s project to take children’s data (racial, psychological assessment, special needs, religion, PPS number and so on) and store it until they were 30 …” (more) […]

  • Julie says:

    I feel so passionate about this issue.
    I urge everyone who gets the opportunity to study this POD mess with such blatant data breaches to share this post to make other parents aware of the implications for their children.
    I have already written to my daughters’ school and the department of education, I await their responses.

  • fiona haughney says:

    well done. good clarification. I’ve shared on FB – I hope thats ok.

    I marked the box that said F’off and mind your own business!

  • nuala says:

    As a dual ethnicity family, we welcome the national collection of data on ethnicity. Ethnic monitoring has the potential to gather valuable historic data, can provide for a more inclusive society, can help identify areas that need more support and can encourage the nation to celebrate diversity in todays’ Ireland.
    However the effort that the CSO have made in their questionnaire (as seen since the 2006 Census) which is being copied more and more by government departments, shows a complete lack of understanding of the very issue they are attempting to gather data on.
    In the recent questionnaire circulated by the Department of Education and taken from the CSO question in the Census, the options given to parents answering the question “To which ethnic or cultural background group does your child belong (please tick one)?” reflects the ignorance of our society in relation to ethnicity.
    As parents committed to ensuring our children are raised with a strong sense of identity, we find the categories upsetting and depressing. The CSO be leading the way in gathering relevant data, teaching the nation today and in generations to come about Ireland and its citizens, about what it is to be Irish, about today’s diversity and more importantly to help us recognise that to have a different ethnicity does not mean you cannot be Irish.
    Firstly, the terms “White” and “Black” do not identify ethnicity. They are terms created in the past to allow one group to dominate the other.
    To assume that White Irish, for example, is an “ethnic group” is a sad reflection of our education system. What is White Irish? Does it mean a child born in Ireland, say of white parents from Ukraine, is “White Irish”. Yet they may in fact only speak Ukrainian, may be socially isolated and for the Departments “interest” may need language support? Can a child of Breton/ Irish parents be classed as White Irish? Yet a child of Indian/ Irish parents would have to move on down the list???
    What about “Any other White background”? If the data gathering is an attempt to make our education system more inclusive and target resources where necessary, how can “lumping” children with white South Africans, British, Russians, Polish, Brazilian etc. ethnicity together address this issue? Are people in “Any other White background” not allowed have an ethnicity?
    “Black African” and “Any other Black background”? Black is not an ethnicity. Looking at Ireland today and the number of black children, do they not deserve to be able to celebrate both their ethnicity and their Irishness? What about the many Black Irish people who have made Ireland what it is? Would Phil Lynott, Paul Mc Grath, Seán Óg O’ Hailpin, and the thousands of Irish children with mixed ethnicity have to be “Any other Black background”? What about an Irish teenager, who has never been outside of Ireland, speaks Irish fluently has a local accent and plays hurling but their parents are from Ghana? What about Doctor Bhamjee who has made his life and home in Ireland for so many years? The categories are so dismissive and cannot possibly serve to gather relevant and valuable data.
    Similarly a person who chooses to be Asian but is not Chinese has to tick “Any other Asian Background”. Are we content to lump those of Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Sri Lankan, Malaysian, etc. ethnicity together? What percentage of the world population make up “Any other Asian Background”?
    Would an Irish person in Australia feel happy if asked to fill out a form where they had no choice but to identify their ethnicity in the same category as British, French, German, Italian etc.?
    The last choice we find most insulting- “Other including mixed race backgrounds”. Exactly what benefit to the Department will gathering this data have? How can you identify needs and ensure an inclusive approach to education by gathering data from this box? Would Leo Varadkar tick this box? The percentage of children in Ireland today from mixed race backgrounds is huge.
    Looking at the school our children attend, we can be proud of its ethnic mix, many children can boast dual ethnicities with for example, Irish/ Polish parents, Irish/ Spanish parents, Traveller Irish /Settled Irish parents, American/ Irish parents, Thai/ Irish parents, Italian/ Irish parents, Algerian/ Irish parents, Nigerian/ Irish parents, Ugandan/ Irish parents, Mozambique/ Irish Parents, British / Irish parents, Cameroon/ Irish parents etc. etc. Do all these children just get bundled together? Do we bundle in here also Irish children whose parents may have become Irish Citizens in recent years?
    Once more, we welcome the idea of gathering this data on ethnicity. It will have huge value in generations to come. If done properly, it has the potential to lead the way in ensuring an inclusive and accepting society. It can help identify needs within society and ensure an equality proofed nation. However by providing such insulting choices, the CSO is in danger of reinforcing the stereotyping that exists in Ireland today.

  • […] has written about it already, and has created an online form where parents can express their […]

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