By Telnis Skuqi
GJIROKASTËR – The new school year brought more to the halls of the University of Gjirokastër, than excited students, text books and the uncertainty of new classes. It also brought 20-year old medical histories illegally and embarrassingly into public view.
School health officials posted on a school bulletin board the names of 21 students, telling them they may have received defective vaccines for Hepatitis B, a dangerous disease that attacks the liver and often carries an unwelcome stigma. All of the students received vaccinations at birth, in the early 1990s, and only recently has news of potential problems begun to surface.
The notices, hung in dormitories at the start of the fall semester, told the entire school that some of their friends and classmates may be carrying the disease. It alarmed and embarrassed the students who were named.
The posting of medical information is illegal in Albania, but is often ignored or abused by officials who don’t know the law or don’t care, experts on privacy laws said.
Such violations of privacy and personal data are rampant in Gjirokastër and elsewhere around the country. And the intrusions cover many aspects of society, including court documents, police files, bank records and utility bills. Violators are rarely punished and victims have few places to turn for help.
Kaliopi Bici, the representative of the Albanian Helsinki Committee for Gjirokastër, said that the right to publish personal data in public spaces lies only with the courts, even in cases when public order and safety are threatened.
“The law provides that every institution should protect the personal data of every citizen. The case of the university is a flagrant one, and incomprehensible, because it is not a case of threat to the public safety,’’ Bici said.
Health officials say they had no intention of embarrassing students, but put the list out as a warning for potential health problems so the students could seek help.
“We did not make public the health conditions of the students, but appealed to them to come to the medical center,’’ a senior official of the health institution said. The official asked to remain anonymous, a courtesy not extended to the hepatitis patients.
The university rector, Associate Professor Gëzim Sala, ordered that the list of patients be removed as soon as he found out. He said the list was illegal and sullied the reputation of the most important educational institution in the South of Albania.
“No institution has the right to publish someone’s personal data, including medical history, without their consent,’’ Sala said. “The medical center and the Student Treatment Institute (STI) should find other methods of informing them.’’
Sala admits that it has been common practice for medical centers to post lists publicly, but insists the practice must stop.
Bici said Sala’s decision to remove the names was a good one, but added more must be done.
“These cases should not be repeated. The students and consumers should be compensated, because their image was involuntarily damaged,’’ Bici said.
Violations of public secrecy laws are popping up in many forums and all areas of Albania.
A particularly egregious offender is the state postal service, where postmen routinely dump reams of documents and letters into the street instead of delivering them to the proper address, residents in Gjirokastër and elsewhere say.
Abuses by postal employees have been going on for years, according to residents who have witnessed the practice.
Sofia G, a retired woman living in Gjirokastër, tells the story of watching a postman throw electric bills into the street in the Zinxhira neighborhood at the end of last year, then walking away.
Instead of letting the documents lay there, Sofia collected the scattered bills and distributed them to their rightful owners.
“To tell you the truth, I am angry with the postman,’’ said Sofia G, 68, a former high school teacher. “He left my personal data and those of the other apartment block inhabitants at the mercy of God.”
Sofia considers the postman’s action to be irresponsible. The practice has become a real concern for the inhabitants of Gjirokastër, and is costing residents’ money. In December, 2012, at least 15 families in the Manalat neighborhood were forced to pay an overdue fee, because they never received their electricity bills. The fee is small, but grows for each day the bill is not paid.
“CEZ Distribution sends the bills on time, but we never find them in the appropriate delivery place. Someone has to take responsibility, because the bills are official and contain personal data,’’ Sofia says.
The former high school teacher says people have become more aware of the need to protect personal data.
“Bless the day electricity bills started to be delivered in sealed envelopes, but the postman has not understood the importance of confidentiality yet,’’ she says. Sofia recalls that years ago the individual bill was a concern for all the inhabitants. Bills – not just electric but many other bills — were delivered as an open document and anyone could spy on their neighbor’s financial and spending habits.
“Nobody has the right to know how and how much I spend.’’
A spokesperson for CEZ Distribution in Gjirokastër said that it has not violated privacy laws and followed all precautions when mailing out its bills. He said the task of distributing the bills to customers falls squarely on the Albanian Mail Office, under terms of a bilateral contract.
“CEZ Distribution would be held responsible if the electricity bills would be delivered as open letters to the Albanian Mail Office,’’ the CEZ spokesperson said. But that didn’t happen, “thus, the duty of investigating this case of mismanagement lies with the Albanian Mail Office.’’
The Albanian Mail Office and its Head for the town of Gjirokastër refused to talk about the local utility bills or about similar incidents happening all around the country.
Flora Çabej, Commissioner for Personal Data Protection (KMDP), said that companies that have a legitimate need to compile personal data also have a responsibility to store and protect that information.
“No one may be compelled, except as required by law, to disclose information to a third party,’’ she said, adding protecting the information is essential to “guaranteering human rights and fundemental freedoms.’’
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