Sun | Jun 16, 2024

Editorial | Passports, privacy confidence

Published:Sunday | May 26, 2024 | 10:06 AM
Mark Golding, leader of the Opposition and president of the People's National Party, with Senator Donna Scott-Mottley, member of the Constitutional Reform Committee Member, during a press conference held at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition on West King's House Road in St Andrew.

Technology Minister Daryl Vaz's revelation concerning Mark Golding's travel documents again brings to the fore the question of the level of personal privacy public officials should legitimately expect to enjoy, as well as the potential of people with power to abuse their access to citizens' private information.

For the avoidance of doubt, this newspaper makes no claim, and doesn't intend to imply, that Mr Vaz did any such thing. We are nonetheless surprised at the seeming lack of curiosity of the new information minister, Dana Morris Dixon about this issue (other than her unquestioning acceptance of Mr Vaz's explanation of how he came in possession of Mr Golding's information), especially in the context of the recent promulgation of the Data Protection Act (DPA) and the government's wish for the public to have confidence in its provisions.

Indeed, another notable and surprising takeaway from the imbroglio is how few, if any questions have been directed to the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) on the matter. It hasn't been asked to account for the leak. And neither, surprisingly, has the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) been called upon by the Opposition to conduct an investigation.

The Gleaner, of course, starts on the premise that people who hold, or aspire to high office, ought not to expect, and shouldn't be entitled to, the same level of privacy afforded to ordinary citizens, over whose lives and collective resources they exercise great power.

Which is why we hold to, and often repeat, the maxim of the late Anguillan-Antiguan lawyer, Bernice Lake, declared several years ago at a conference in Jamaica on the reform of the region's defamation laws.

“When he throws his hat in the national arena, the politician does so on the basis of an implied promise to promote and protect free speech and the social interest of honest, open and accountable government,” Ms Lake said. “He does so with the concomitant subordination of the right to privacy. Upon the assumption of office, he makes that promise expressly.”

LEGITIMATE INTEREST

On that basis, the fact that Mr Golding, the president of the People's National Party (PNP) and leader of the Opposition, and prime ministerial aspirant first applied for a Jamaican passport – as was revealed by Mr Vaz – at age 46, is information in which voters have a legitimate interest. As should be the case with the income, assets and liabilities of anyone who sits in Parliament.

In that regard we, in the normal course of things, would have no qualms with Vaz's disclosure. Except that Mr Vaz is in a unique, and in many respects privileged, position.

Until a year ago when Dr Morris Dixon was made the minister with responsibility for digital transformation, Mr Vaz was in charge of putting in place the arrangements to support the DPA, the legislation that protects private information held by institutions, including those of the government, on individuals. Against that backdrop, he, even more than most other members of the political executive, bears an obligation to respect the requirements of the DPA.

Of course, Mr Vaz has reported that he received the information about Mr Golding's passport not by abusing his ministerial privileges, but from sources from deep within Mr Golding's party. That is entirely possible. After all, there are likely to be still people in the PNP who would relish embarrassing the opposition leader.

ERROR

But it was an error, and a breach of fundamental principles for dealing with such issues, that, having accepted Mr Vaz's declared source of his information, Dr Morris Dixon apparently felt that ought to be the end of the matter. Nothing more!

It would have been acceptable for Dr Morris Dixon to make clear that as the minister for information and digital transformation, her primary role is to establish policy and to pursue/monitor implementation. Day-to-day management is the responsibility of specific agencies. But she would also have been expected to demand that government agencies covered by the DPA play by the rules.

With respect to information about Mr Golding's passport – and travel documents generally – PICA is the agency that's immediately responsible. Like other data controllers it is obliged to keep that information safe and secure. A failure to do so can lead to criminal liability. Indeed, institutions that control and manage people's private information are required by the law to appoint data protection officers.

In those circumstances, it is possible that Andrew Wynter, PICA's executive director, has already caused an investigation at the agency, to satisfy himself that there was no breach of its data protection rules and guidelines.

Additionally, Celia Blake, the information commissioner, the regulator of the Data Protection Act, has an interest in knowing that the agencies under her purview play by the rules. She might, therefore, have asked for a report from PICA for assurance that, with respect to the Golding issue, they operated within the rules.

The administration has a great interest in ensuring that the system not only works, but that ordinary people have confidence in how the government manages their information. A lack of public trust will undermine the government's much-touted initiatives to transition Jamaica to a digital economy.

(NOTE: In an earlier version of this editorial, it was incorrectly stated that Mr. Golding's first application for a Jamaican passport was made after he became a minister of government. The application was made in 2011 while Mr. Golding was an opposition senator. We regret the error.)