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Malta for Dummies #12 – Keeping it all in the family at the Lands Authority

Lands Authority leak

Like most, if not all, things in Malta, recent revelations about the massive breach of personal data by the Lands Authority didn’t come out of nowhere and neither did the Lands Authority for that matter.

Previously known as The Lands Department, in 2015 it was embroiled in the Gaffarena scandal when Mark Gaffarena bought part of a property in Old Mint Street, Valletta, which was then expropriated by the government in return for massive compensation to Gaffarena in the form of land and cash.

This seemed such a good deal that they did the same thing twice. Gaffarena walked away with a profit of €685,000 euro and ’10 football pitches’ worth of land’.

mark gaffarena
Marco Gaffarena

It wasn’t until this year that a court decision revoked the blatantly corrupt transaction which should, in theory, see public land being returned to its rightful owners – the people.

The Gaffarena scandal led to something almost unheard of in Malta – a resignation – although Michael Falzon, then Parliamentary Secretary for Lands, didn’t have to join a queue for unemployment benefits.

He was swiftly placed as a consultant for the Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation and now he sits as Minister for the Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity.

Similarly, the facelift given to the Lands Department by its new name, the Lands Authority, was purely cosmetic. Only this year, its newly appointed CEO James Piscopo, former CEO of the Labour Party and one of Muscat’s right-hand men, was shown to have business partnerships with Fortina Hotel who, in September, was granted a permit by the Planning Authority to build a 15-storey office block and extend their hotel to 23 storeys.

All this without a vital change in a clause restricting their use of public land for the purposes of extending their hotel. Although changing this clause entails parliamentary approval (who needs that when you’re all part of the same Labour family?), Fortina has already turned the deal into a €60 million sale of the property.

So the Lands Authority, responsible for a massive security flaw affecting the personal data of up to 5,000 people, has a lot of baggage to its name. And, like most of the suitcases dragged around Castille, its contents are spilling out with dirty laundry.

evidence personal data breach Lands Dept
A sample of the personal data of Maltese citizens available on Google after a massive breach by the Lands Authority.

Having allowed personal data to be accessible online since the launch of the website in April 2017, no apology was given by Minister Ian Borg and the Authority has yet to admit its fault. The law obliges the Authority to inform all those who may be affected, and it empowers each citizen to sue the Authority over the breach.

Lawyers and data protection specialists who spoke to The Shift threw cold water on the Lands Authority’s assertion that “no confidential information” was leaked and that there were “no data protection concerns”.

Those affected were supposed to be reassured by the news that an investigation would be conducted by the Authority’s “chief independent auditor” – a lofty name for a 29-year old Labour Mayor of Mqabba, an ex-One TV reporter with no real experience in audit.

Charlene Muscat, was directly engaged by the Lands Authority, bypassing any taken-for-granted normal procedures such as an application process. Muscat was a political campaigner for Justice Minister Owen Bonnici.

The political nepotism shrouding the CEO of the Lands Authority extends to everything within its reach. Exactly how far becomes even clearer with the news that several thousand euro of taxpayers’ money is being paid monthly for legal work carried out by Luke Dalli, son of Equality Minister Helena Dalli, and Edward Zammit Lewis, former Tourism Minister.

Following the resignation of three lawyers in quick succession from the Lands Authority last year, then CEO Carlo Mifsud had claimed these resignations were unrelated to controversies surrounding unfair promotion practices and maintained that full-time employees would be contracted as lawyers, notaries and legal procurators. As it transpires, his reassurances must have fallen on deaf ears as the mantra of keeping it in the family is the only song we hear.

The tentacles of this mafia-style modus operandi don’t stop here, of course, and no doubt in the future, more will be uncovered.

Webee Ltd, the website developers for the Lands Authority, followed the Minister’s example in their refusal to accept responsibility for what is such a large-scale leak of confidential information. Previously, Webee Ltd were exposed by assassinated journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, for setting up a fake website under the name of Simon Busuttil in the general election to aid the Labour Party’s campaign.

The company was generously awarded by the Labour Party in government – since the Labour Party first came into power, they’ve been awarded contracts and direct orders worth more than €200,000.

This includes designing the Labour Party’s website along with the Marigold Foundation, chaired by the Prime Minister’s wife Michelle Muscat. Disturbing given the recent data breach, Webee Ltd were also responsible for redesigning the website for Identity Malta.

When the Labour Party shot to power in 2013, it promised meritocracy, transparency and accountability. This case alone show just how worthless those words were.

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