Following the leak of a Socialist Party database containing the data of more than 910,000 people, Albanians became aware that they had each been assigned a “Patron”.
The data which was leaked in Access format, included their ID number, name, fathers name, surname, date of birth, voting center, place of birth, residence code, list number, phone number, whether they are an emigrant and if so, which country, whether they are likely to vote for the Socialist Party, birthplace, employer, and Patron. It’s believed the data came from the Civil Registry and was gathered by the e-Albania portal.
The Patronage system is one whereby every person in the country has a “patronazhist”. This is a low-ranking party official or even just a party member who is assigned several members of the public to “watch over”.
This means they are tasked with getting close to those they are watching over to get information from them which is then reported back to the party. The information includes their political affiliation and opinions and who they are likely to vote for in the election. Prime Minister Edi Rama has admitted to using this system since 2009.
Many citizens have publicly named their Patrons and stated that the information collected is incorrect. People are however angry that the PS has been attempting to “spy” on them. There have also been concerns about some of the comments used by Patrons including racial slurs, personal family information, and derogatory comments. Others included where they worked, notes to contact them to get their employees to vote for PS, religious beliefs, and calls to check their social media platforms.
In a bizarre attempt to spin the narrative, leading PS officials have tried to paint the Patrons as a positive thing.
Over the weekend, in a meeting with youth in Tirana, Prime Minister Edi Rama decided the theme of his speech would be the Patrons. He described them as normal in the school of politics, and individuals that go door to door to ask them about their problems. He also said they were “being treated badly.”
Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj also defended them. He said:
“The word Patron has become a hot topic these days. We are very grateful to all our patrons who try to meet people, explain the program, and show real things”.
I find this narrative utterly astonishing. Using potentially stolen data, the governing party has assigned a network of party members to observe, monitor, and report back on citizens, most of the time without ever actually speaking to them. The fact that they are trying to somehow normalize this is one of the most bizarre political maneuvers I have ever seen.
During the communist regime, there was a very similar system in place. Each apartment block had at least one or two spies who were tasked with observing, monitoring, and reporting back to the party. Asides from this, members of the public became informants, sometimes telling on their spouses, children, extended family, and closest friends.
This devastating way of sowing seeds of distrust and pitting people against each other has left significant wounds in Albanian society that can still be seen today. The utter betrayal people must feel upon discovering this is still being done, is hard to comprehend.
But what concerns me more is the fact that the personal data of almost 1 million people are out there, and no efforts have been made to protect them. A leak of this size and with this kind of data is incredibly dangerous. Criminals now have access to intimate information about almost half of the adult population of the country. This means they can open bank accounts, take out loans, set up online accounts, open fake social media platforms, forge ID cards and documents, buy items on credit, commit crimes, take out a phone contract, ruin your credit score, buy a house, withdraw money from accounts, get a sim card in your name, and obtain any other number of privileges or goods that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to if using their name.
Yet, nothing has been done about this. No party headquarters have been searched, no politicians have announced an emergency procedure they will implement to minimize damage, no one has apologized, and instead, the prosecution has gone after journalists. Yes, you read that right. Instead of investigating how this happened and trying to figure out how to limit damage, they have forced the journalist who broke the story to hand over their data and potentially, source.
What has happened in the last week, and what has apparently been going on for years is perhaps one of the worst privacy violations I have come across. The lack of appropriate response by authorities and politicians is also the most infuriating.
Don’t fall for this rhetoric that Patrons are normal and a good thing. They are not. But also do not let them detract from the fact that their hunger for power has put the security of each and every one of you at risk.