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Editorial | Urgent need for data-protection law

Published:Tuesday | July 4, 2017 | 12:00 AM

No one is likely to have come close to losing their life savings, or very much. Yet, those Jamaicans who were suckered into last weekend's telephone fraud would now have a feeling of what it is like to be scammed and are, hopefully, more empathetic towards the many elderly Americans duped into handing their money to Jamaican fraudsters.

At the same time, the weekend development raises the issue of data protection, for which there is no special legislation in Jamaica, but should now find a place of urgency on the agenda of the Holness administration.

The weekend ruse originated in Poland. Someone, apparently with a premium service, electronically dialled large numbers of mobile telephones in Jamaica. The phone rang once, sufficient for the appearance of a missed or dropped call.

The problem began for the Jamaican recipients if, and when, they returned the call. It would be calling a high-cost, premium service, which would mean the Jamaican dialer would be paying a substantially more expensive rate than the cost of a regular call to Poland. The upshot: The owner of the premium service line pays the carrier in Poland and walks away with a substantial profit for himself.

This scheme is significantly different from the so-called lottery scam, in which Jamaicans mostly purloined demographic data to identify their victims, who are told that they have won sweepstakes, but have to pay taxes and other fees before retrieving their rewards. The victims are often preyed on until their bank accounts are dry.

Many people considered the lotto scam a victimless crime, of sorts. No one was hurt except for mainly elderly people in America, supposedly with loads of money. The scam, though, spawned something worse an ongoing wave of killings and other crimes as the newly wealthy fraudsters battled for turf, over information on potential new victims of the fraud, the sharing of spoils, and other issues relating to their lifestyles.

The lottery scam and last weekend's racket highlight an issue on which there has been, up to now, insufficient attention: the protection of data and the absence of legislation to ensure that it happens. The data used by the lottery scammers were, in the early days, stolen from call centres established in Jamaica to serve US customers. Apparently, there are now varied sources for these lists.

It is not clear how the shysters in Poland accumulated the telephone numbers used in their robocalls. Neither of Jamaica's telephone service providers reports that its computers were hacked. It could be that the numbers were randomly generated by the racketeers.

They could also have been acquired some other way.


Protect privacy


Indeed, many private firms, government agencies and other institutions, not least banks, insurance companies, hospitals and universities, accumulate vast amounts of information on their customers. And there are others without a clear legal obligation for the storage, processing and sharing of this data to protect the privacy of the individual and his or her right to access this information and to insist that false information be corrected. Further, only in the case of a few bits of recent legislation may individuals be informed about the processing of data on them.

As digital systems expand, these databases will continue to expand.

It is important, therefore, that there are mechanisms to protect people's rights, not only from commercial interests, but a potentially overreaching state.