Malta's top data protection body will not be investigating accusations that the Office of the Prime Minister published details about confidential complaints passed on to it by the Ombudsman.

Replying to questions by Times of Malta, a spokesman for the Data Commissioner’s office said the commissioner saw no need to investigate this specific issue. 

The Ombudsman said those submitting complaints to his office did so on the understanding that their identity and the nature of their grievance would be protected from “undue and unwanted publicity”.

Minimal information about complaints was submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office by the Ombudsman for the purpose of keeping the public administration abreast of the status of investigations.

In some instances, information published by the Principal Permanent Secretary (PPS) went beyond the information the Ombudsman had given to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ombudsman said in his 2018 annual report.

The document published last November by the Principal Permanent Secretary, titled ‘Governance’, gave a breakdown of the action taken by the public administration on points raised in the Ombudsman’s 2017 annual report.

Anyone who felt the governance report infringed on his or her data protection rights had the right to lodge a complaint

Despite ruling out an investigation into the case, the spokesman for the Data Commissioner pointed out that anyone who felt the governance report infringed on his or her data protection rights had the right to lodge a complaint, which would then be investigated accordingly. 

Ombudsman's qualms

The Ombudsman has argued that the governance document contained data of a “personal nature”, with specific information on complaints and the progress of the Ombudsman’s investigations into these complaints. 

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“Privacy and strict confidentiality imposed by law are considered to be essential components and requisites of the investigative process,” the Ombudsman’s report lamented in reaction to the publication of this personal data.

The Ombudsman’s office said information was provided to the Prime Minister’s Office within the constraints imposed by data protection and on the understanding that such investigations are carried out away from the public eye.

These accusations by the Ombudsman have been roundly refuted by the PPS. 

“If the Ombudsman opined that the public service breached confidentiality criteria, the same can be said about the Ombudsman’s case notes publications,” the PPS said.

“The public service’s governance publications replicated the precautions to anonymise the subjects in the same manner as the Ombudsman’s case notes.”

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