Friday, 12 December 2008

Fat Fingers

12th December 2008

The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

In these days of electronic communications it is quite possible to come across problems of fat fingers.

Sitting at a keyboard giving orders for execution of financial transactions, it is not unknown for mistakes to be made with fat fingers punching in an extra zero that makes an order for one hundred thousand become an order for one million. Such fat finger errors often become a market changing event, at least until they are discovered and corrected.

Recently in local politics we seem to have experienced a dramatic fat figure event. It also has the potential of becoming a game-changing incident.

A very confidential e-mail sent by the secretary general of the PN to cabinet ministers and secretariat officials at the Office of the Prime Minister speaks in quite detailed terms on the cooperation necessary between Customer Care officers at the ministries and the PN on a project of “data sharing” about complaints from the electorate, seeking personal details together with the nature of the complaint and action taken. It says in black on white that the “aim is to create a strong network of communication with collective synergy so that together we can be more effective towards whoever approaches the Party or the ministries/parliamentary secretariats... The thinking is to render the pre-election process spread over the whole legislature.”

How did this extremely confidential information come to light? The PN secretary general seems to have had a problem with his fat finger. Instead of sending the e-mail to Jason 1 (Parliamentary Secretary Jason Azzopardi) he sent it in error to Jason 2 (Jason Micallef PL secretary general). Fat finger sent this confidential information directly from its source straight into adversarial territory.

Clearly there is strong prima facie evidence that the government and the party in government were working on a project to exchange or share data which would enable the party to gain electoral advantage over its opponents who have no access to such information. By so doing there was going to be gross breach of data protection obligations that are now enshrined in our laws, which breach could even become a criminal offence. The very fact that state officials paid by tax-payers’ money attended a meeting, during office hours and in the course of their normal duties, at the PN headquarters, addressed and attended by senior party officials is already questionable. It shows how the long tenure of power seems to have enmeshed into a single entity the structures of government and of the governing party with clear intention for both structures to reinforce each other even if in the process, national resources would be put at the disposal and advantage of a political party.

The desperate effort to limit the damage of these very serious revelations have all the ingredients of panic by someone who has finally been caught out after getting away with it for a long time.

Firstly, we had a warning by the Head of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat that no minister or government official should breach the Data Protection provisions and any exchange of information can only be done after obtaining written approval of the individual concerned. In reality this warning is, if anything, further supporting evidence that the original intention was for data sharing in breach of the data protection legislation.

If the intention of those that attended the meeting was to play within the limits of the Data Protection Act, why was this not included in the original communication thus avoiding the need of a panic clarification once it was realised that the e-mail was sent to the wrong Jason? The original e-mail had all the indications to the contrary i.e. that the intention was for the data to flow freely between the two organisations with little concern to the provisions of the Data Protection Act.

When it was clear that the PN was losing this battle in the realms of public opinion, the PN secretary general decided to go on the attack and threatened Jason 2 with legal action for abusive publication of a document which was sent to him in error. The PN argued that the email was a customer service enhancement exercise and that it was mere prodding by the party to government to give full attention to client complaints and for such information to be centralised within the OPM where personal information would stay, without in any way breaching the Data Protection Act.

Believe it if you want but if this was the intention, why was it necessary to have government paid officials attend meetings at PN Headquarters? If the intention was one of mere prodding, it would have been enough for the PN secretary general to simply communicate his wishes to the PM and then let the PM delegate to his secretariat coordination of such a strategy within the structures of civil service.

This shows the importance of having an effective Data Protection Office headed by a competent and autonomous person. The void in this respect means that even if a detailed investigation is conducted after the appointment of a Data Protection Commissioner, this will be done after allowing ample time for suspects to cover all tracks.

Whatever may turn out, the damage has been done. There is little doubt that where it matters, in the realms of public opinion, people have little doubt that hanky-panky was going on and the government and the PN have lost all sense of their respective and separate roles. Long tenure of power brings about over-confidence which in the end will kill the cat. Thank goodness for fat fingers as they proved very effective in throwing light on illicit activities which would otherwise have continued to thrive in the dark!


No comments:

Post a Comment