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Big Brother is watching students: The implications of Legal Notice 76

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“Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy,” claimed Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead. But today it seems that civilization is moving ever further away from the privacy of the individual. The latest issue in Malta is Legal Notice 76 of 2014, which concerns the regulation of data of all students enrolled in any educational institution.

Article 4 (3) of the Legal Notice gives the Minister for Education the right of access of “data relating to age, sex, ability, educational attainments and other data of the persons to whom they relate as appear to the Minister to be necessary to be used for research purposes and to provide for adequate advice to be given on employment prospects and to prepare plans for their training pursuant to the provisions of the Act.” Article 4 (2) stipulates that “This data shall include a legally valid identification document number due to the importance of secure identification of students.”

According to the Data Protection Act, “The identity card number may, in the absence of consent, only be processed when such processing is clearly justified having regard to: (a) the purpose of the processing; (b) the importance of a secure identification; (c) some other valid reason as may be prescribed.” (Article 18). Article 7 of the same act ensures that “personal data is only collected for specific, explicitly stated and legitimate purposes.”

What concerns many students, as well as Kunsill Studenti Universitarji (KSU), is that the Legal Notice is vague about what these “research purposes” are. The Education Act already gives the Directorate the right to “request, collect and verify any information, data and statistics, as may be required for the performance of its functions.” (Article 16 (1)) Surely such statistics are enough for most research purposes? There is nothing wrong with the collection of anonymous data and statistics for research purposes. But with Legal Notice 76, the data has been given an unmistakeable personal stamp. Parents and students alike have the right to know why the Government is collecting their children’s or their own personal data, especially considering that neither the purpose of the processing of the identity card number, nor its importance, are explicitly stated, as required by the Data Protection Act.

None of the students, or their parents in the case of minors, have agreed to handing over their personal data to the Ministry of Education. They have not been given the option to refuse to share their data and are obliged participate in this research. In fact, the Legal Notice explicitly states that “Any person who fails to comply with any request made under this article shall be guilty of an offence against the Act.” (Article 4 (4)) How ethical is it to force people to hand over personal data for research, even if they do not wish to do so? It is as if they have lost ownership of their own personal information.

Apart from research, it is also claimed that the data will be used to give advice and training. But is this necessary? Most if not all educational institutions in Malta offer their own career guidance services, and we already have the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) responsible for training.

With around 11,000 students at the University of Malta, and thousands of others enrolled in various educational institutions in the country, the Legal Notice allows access to the date of a large part of Maltese society. It concerns those who are most vulnerable: children, from as young as pre-primary level, who certainly cannot understand the implications of this Legal Notice.

However, the concerns are not limited to just children. At post-secondary and tertiary institutions, students start taking up roles in society, some as activists or as journalists. Is it not worrying that the Government can access so much information about these people?

Since in Malta education is obligatory up until the secondary level, the Government will have the data of every single person between the ages of 5 and 16. It will also have information about children younger than that age, and many others older than that. It is possible that the Ministry will also have access to the information of international students, as the Legal Notice is unclear on the matter. This constitutes a large part of our society. But it becomes even more serious than that, as the Legal Notice also gives the power to access “other data of the persons to whom they relate.” (Article 4 (3)) As with the term “research”, this is very ambiguous as it does not define the extent of the relations.

This could potentially give the Minister an unbelievable amount of power. Those who are affected by this Legal Notice deserve to be given a clearer version which details its limits and removes all ambiguity.

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