The controversial Safe City Malta project appears to still be alive and kicking despite the government’s pledge last January to close down the company and its controversial public surveillance programme that was being developed for the government by China’s Huawei.
The Safe City Malta project had been first introduced by disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat as a facial recognition CCTV system that was to be implemented first in crime-hit areas such as Paceville and Marsa.
The announcement had been met with widespread criticism both on a Maltese and an EU level, not just over the use of facial recognition but also because of the government’s chosen partner, China’s Huawei, which itself has been embroiled in a number of international surveillance controversies.
The government said in January that the contract with Huawei, which had been introduced to Malta by former minister Konrad Mizzi’s Chinese wife, Sai Mizzi Liang, had expired, that it would not be renewed and that the government-owned company, Safe City Malta, would be closed down.
That, however, does not seem to have happened. The government, in fact, has now appointed a new board to run the ‘Big Brother’ project.
Omar Debono, a former INDIS Malta Ltd chief operations officer, has been reappointed as the company’s director and Major Joseph Cauchi and Nadine Mizzi have been appointed as its board members.
The company is 100% owned by Malta Strategic Partnership Projects Ltd, which falls directly under the remit of Prime Minister Robert Abela. Cuschieri is on Malta Strategic Partnership Projects’ board.
Safe City Malta, the government said six months ago, was being wound down but the board of directors and a company secretary have now been appointed for another year until June 2024.
According to budget estimates, Safe City Malta is being run on a €400,000-a-year budget with nothing, so far, to show for Muscat’s failed brainwave apart from a hole in the state coffers and a hole in Malta’s reputation as the EU country willing to go down the Orwellian route in the name of public safety.
Buckling to pressure from the EU and the European Parliament, which had both expressed grave concerns over the surveillance programme, the government had backtracked on the project’s contentious facial recognition element over fears of breaking Maltese and EU laws.
It had said that even though the system has facial recognition capability, it will not be deployed.
Safe City Malta’s former director was Joe Cuschieri, who resigned from a posting as Malta Financial Services Authority CEO in the wake of an all-expenses-paid trip he took with the man now charged with commissioning the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, casino owner Yorgen Fenech to Las Vegas. Cuschieri had also formerly headed the Malta Gaming Authority.
Cuschieri said in 2021 that instead of facial recognition, the system would use “advanced video surveillance” to detect certain disturbances in the areas under surveillance.
That watered-down version, however, is believed to have still fallen foul of EU surveillance rules, which led to the government’s announcement in January that the programme would be scrapped altogether.