Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 23 November 2008

Customer care, my ass

Paul Borg Olivier should thank his lucky stars he is a citizen of the European Union’s least democratic and politically mature member state. Had last week’s antics occurred in a country with even the basics of a political responsibility culture, his head would already be affixed to the battlements at the Dar Centrali Partit Nazzjonalista.

But I rush before my horse to market. For those who may have been too engrossed by the Coca-Cola Music Awards to even notice, the PN secretary general last week committed what politics insiders refer to as a GBBB (“Great Big Boo-Boo”). Actually, he committed three.
It seems that Dr Borg Olivier requested all Cabinet ministers to forward to his own office the personal data of all citizens who had complained to their respective ministries. No great revelation there; after all, illegal information gathering, coupled with abuse of government money for purely partisan ends, is as much part of the local political landscape as accepting undeclared contributions from private businesses, in return for zero interference in their dodgy affairs.
But this time round there was a difference: for Paul Borg Olivier actually put this request down in writing (Boo-Boo the First). He then sent it by email to all the Cabinet ministers concerned (Boo-Boo the Second); little realising that unlike printed documents, electronic mail cannot be shredded in case of an emergency, and can be forwarded to any recipient in the world at the mere click of a mouse.
Which brings me to Boo-Boo the Third: it seems Borg Olivier accidentally sent this damning email to other people who were not privy to his party’s grand plans of data extortion and information control... sending the entire GonziPN administration into a flurry of panic in the process.

The situation would be quite comical – hilarious, even – if the implications were not so sinister.
Let’s put it this way: what use could the National Party possibly have for a complaint (say) regarding the provision of electricity... if the PN does not also exert illicit influence on employees of government departments, and can thereby force Enemalta to prioritise certain complaints (eg, those made by Nationalists) above others?
Besides, you needn’t be a genius of the Isaac Newton calibre to understand how useful this information can be in the months before an election – be it general, local council, or for the European Parliament, which just happens to be coming up next June.
Borg Olivier, by the way, is the general secretary of the Nationalist Party: in other words, the man who assumes full responsibility for that party’s electoral performance.
What better way to guarantee oneself an automatic and insuperable electoral advantage over one’s competitors, than by having illicit access to an exhaustive database of disgruntled citizens... which access is available only to the party in government, and automatically denied to the party in Opposition?

Right, I admit mathematics was never my area of expertise, but... what was two plus two again?

In any case, there was a fourth GBBB... although this one was the inevitable consequence of having been caught out like a rat in a trap.
Paul Borg Olivier, unable to deny the self-evident allegation, sought instead to twist the facts of the case beyond recognition. This is what he said in comments to this newspaper last Sunday: “(The PN has a) customer care unit set up, geared at channelling people to various ministries...”
Sorry, Paul, but with your email you were trying to channel information about complaining citizens away from the various ministries, and towards your own party. Which is almost exactly the other way round.
Besides, even if we accept the premise that your party has a “customer care unit”... since when are we, the citizens of this country, “customers” of the PN? I know it’s a little hard to understand, in a country where 99% of the population lives in self-imposed ignorance of even the most elementary and basic political facts of life, but – big surprise coming up here – the Nationalist Party is not actually the government of Malta, and conversely, the government of Malta is not the Nationalist Party.
Failure to understand this would be mere ignorance in the case of the man in the street. In the case of the party secretary and/or Cabinet minister, it is tantamount to corruption.

There is another snag to Borg Olivier’s version of events: he also said that “all information held by the party and transmitted to ministers is in compliance with the Data Protection Act...”
Again, the PN general secretary has subverted the nature of the case – we are dealing with information transmitted from ministries to the party, not the other way around – but even without this glaring anomaly, Paul Borg Olivier’s argument does not hold any water whatsoever, for the simple reason that... IT... IS... NOT... TRUE.

Among the more annoying political misconceptions to be bandied about in this country – also by myself, in the days before I knew any better – is that political parties are somehow “exempt” from the Data Protection Act.
No, they are not. The only exception involves the processing of data concerning members of the political party in question. In other words, paid-up party cardholders. As for the rest (i.e., the vast majority of this country’s population), both Nationalist and Labour Parties require the data subjects’ active consent to store any personal information about them; as well additional (express) consent, should the same data be used for any purpose other than that for which it was originally collected.
Furthermore, any transfer of information to third parties, even if legally stored, would require the data subjects’ consent, too.
I need hardly add, therefore, that the PN general secretary’s request was highly illegal, and if any government ministry were to comply, it would de facto become an accessory to an illegal act of information gathering for purposes which benefit only the Nationalist Party, and not the citizen, nor the government ministry/department, still less the country as a whole.

Can we have an investigation, please?
The above mentioned GBBBs constitute further proof – if any were still needed – that political parties in this country consider themselves entirely above the law. And who can blame them? After all, no serious investigation has ever been initiated into these unwholesome and dangerous breaches of the Data Protection Act; and this for a number of very good reasons.
One: with very few exceptions, magisterial investigations have to be initiated by a government minister, who in this case has a vested interest in making sure that no such investigation takes place;
Two: the Commission which supposedly takes care of Data protection in this country lacks a Commissioner after the untimely death of the last incumbent in August; and the government has evidently no interest in replacing him, for it still hasn’t embarked on consultation with the leader of the Opposition, as required by article 36 of the same law.
Three: the remaining staff at the Data Protection Commission are so wary of upsetting their Nationalist masters – whose interest they evidently serve instead of the State’s – that they refused to answer questions sent by yours truly this week, because the questions were “too direct”.
So in the absence of a serious investigation, I’m afraid you shall have to make do with my own humble efforts. For what it’s worth, here is a recap.

Nationalist Party
At 10.30am on March 9, a certain blogger who thinks very highly of her own intelligence committed the following, remarkably unwise GBBB: she let slip that the PN had already calculated the voter preference of the 7% of non-voters, merely 11 hours after polling booths had shut.
According to this information, 52% of non-voters were Nationalist, and 48% Labour. How the hell did the PN stooges manage to work this out, without a database indicating the political allegiance of all citizens?
I have spoken to a number of former volunteers with the PN electoral office Elcom - or was that Elfcom? - and they all told me the same thing: that by typing in an ID number on the Elfcom network, one will obtain personal data of the citizen concerned, and also an indication of that person’s voting preferences (this latter information being fruit of a patiently orchestrated network of neighbourhood espionage known locally as the “street leader” system.)
Needless to add, this data can only be legally maintained with the data subjects’ active consent.

Labour Party
As usual, you can trust the good old MLP to be even more primitive in its GBBBs than the PN. This time, it wasn’t an unwitting blogger who let the cat out of the bag; it was the party itself, by publishing an internal strategy document in 2000, which advised the electoral office on strategies to improve its information gathering techniques.
“Collection of information is to be carried out according to the attached form”, the document states, referring to a table to be filled in with the citizens’ ID number, name, date of birth, sex, marital status, workplace, description of job, and presumed political preference.
Most astonishing of all is its recommendation to encourage political vigilantism of the kind one normally associates with Maoist China: “Information about non-Labourite families can be researched from Labour supporters in the vicinity. Try and gather as much information as you can, this could be useful...”
Elsewhere, the notorious report into the electoral defeat singled out the party’s electoral database as being “data deficient”.

If all of the above, coupled with Borg Olivier’s indiscretions last week, does not constitute clear evidence of numerous, direct violations of the Data Protection Act, I honestly don’t know what does.
But then again, it’s as the old saying goes: there is one law for political parties, and another for the rest of us idiotic citizens who keep voting for them every five years.


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