Opting out of the full Electoral Register (Roll)
It has been the law for many years that anyone eligible to vote is required by law to have their name on the Electoral register (or roll). Originally the register was used only for legitimate electoral purposes. With the advent of marketing and computer technology it has been misused and for purposes that could not have been envisaged even a decade ago. For example, it has been used for sending 'junk mail' and for finding people by computerised search even if they wished (for whatever reason) to live quietly, undisturbed by their past acquaintances, partners, estranged parents or enemies.
Ever since this webpage was first published it has proved popular. A couple of typical responses are reproduced on the next page.
Four questions for the Internet age.
- Would you be surprised to learn that, if your daughter (for example) visited a public lending library, her name and address and if she lived alone, could perhaps be found by a potential rapist - and using People's Network computers?
- As a woman out shopping, would you be alarmed to learn that the man looking over your shoulder at your credit card might be able to find your address using library or other computers and using information supplied by local government?
- As a user of reference material in a public library, would you be alarmed by the prospect of every page you read being logged by computer against your library ticket number and the infrastructure being put in place (if not yet used) to store this information and cross reference it to electoral roll records held by government? This is exactly what is now happening under the guise of efficiency and preventing 'unwelcome' use of People's Network computers.
- Do you know that details of the price you paid for your home and details of your mortgage lender (if you have one) can now be accessed for £2 payable on-line to a government agency? Is this information that should be so readily available in the public domain?
Electoral registers and the Land Registry
Electoral registers should have one purpose - to allow you to vote. Traditionally, they have been available for inspection by members of the public at Council Offices and in public libraries. However, computerisation and sale of the lists in the last few years all but removed the right to privacy precisely at a time when there was increased concern about stalking and political terrorism.
Using rapid search techniques it is now possible not only for the police to find anyone, but for other people to do so as well. There have been cases of ex prison warders being 'found' by people with a grudge. Families of police officers can no longer feel safe in their homes and it has been made far easier for ex-partners to find their estranged children, etc. All of these problems (and many more) have been caused by misuse of personal data in the form of electoral rolls collected by Local Authorities. In cases of family feuds, sensitivities can run so high that it is now normal practice for parents to be asked if they object to children being photographed at school and in public libraries, for fear that some might not wish to take a risk that they might be identified by a third party. Again, the Internet has a lot to answer for, as do the many websites that act to 'trace long lost friends'.
A test case in the High Court in Wakefield a few years ago established 'the right not to be found' and sale of computerised lists was halted. Under the Representation of the People Act (Regulations 2002) http://www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/si/si2002/20021871.htm two versions of the register were made available, a full version used for electoral purposes and given (as before) to credit reference agencies and a shorter or 'edited' version made available more widely. People were given the right in October 2002 to opt out from appearing on the edited version - and if you want to limit junk mail you receive then it may be best to opt out in the future even if you did not do so then.
The full version may still be available in some libraries and is supposed to be made available for copying 'only under supervision'. How this is to be enforced is a moot point given that librarians in several areas of the UK seem to have little idea of how to implement basic data protection! See data_outtake.htm for more details.
The new arrangements seem to offer little protection against copies of the full registers being obtained either from candidates in local elections (who will be given copies) or by theft from libraries, or via electronic theft or deliberate 'accidental release' from credit agency computers. The lack of security in libraries is a particular concern. Recent developments in scanning and miniature digital cameras now make it possible to copy documents almost as easily as looking at them. A librarian who was untrained in 'counter surveillance' would have little chance of detecting that 'hi-tech' data copying was being undertaken under his or her nose.
Some library staff are concerned by the implications of the High Court case. The only safe course of action would seem to be no longer to make the full electoral register available in libraries. It might be made available to the public (if at all) at Council offices but perhaps only under the supervision of a trained officer so that copying by any covert means was virtually impossible. One of the first documented concerns about 'hi-tech' cameras being misused comes from Singapore. There, use of mobile phones that also contain a camera is banned in certain public areas despite that the picture quality that can be obtained from these is (as yet) poor. Details were published on http://www.singaporerepublic.com. However, as of 2005, few libraries now offer access to the electoral roll at all - they refer you to the relevant office of the Local Authority.
Amongst the consequences of free access to personal address information are:
- criminals can find the home addresses of police and prison officers, and apply pressure to their families.
- celebrities and many other people now hide behind false names on the electoral register, or people just refuse to fill in the forms (and who can blame them)
- witnesses and their families can far more easily be subjected to intimidation by criminals, as can members of a jury and their families, once a juror is followed home from Court. This is hardly a difficult task for a determined gang and who would any longer believe in the ability of the police to protect witnesses?
The 'open access' system used by the Land Registry has further eroded the right to privacy - for several years anyone has been able to find out even by making a simple phone call who owns a particular house or plot of land. Of course, you might guess that politicians would expect special treatment - and you would be right. During the controversy that surrounded Cherie Blair (wife of the British Prime Minister) in December 2002 she issued a statement which included her explanation for wanting to hide the true ownership of two flats in Bristol, one of which was to be occupied by her son whilst at university.
"When we bought the flats we were advised that the (blind) trust would be the safest way of keeping the Blair family name off the Land Registry for security reasons".
So, moving towards an open access society in which personal details are freely available and having sensitive records stored on computer systems run by central and local government and with laughable security is fine for ordinary people but politicians expect to be granted privacy. Maybe politicians know just how insecure the computer systems really are that they instruct the rest of us to trust?
Indeed, the police themselves are worried. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph of 25 January 2003:
"Many Metropolitan police officers fear that a recent decision to force them to wear name badges on their uniform shirt, pullover or jacket, especially if they have an unusual surname, will allow criminals to track down where they live and launch revenge attacks"
The UK Land Registry has recently launched a money-making scheme hailed in the Press (Sunday Telegraph 26 April 2003) as enabling you to find out:
"Everything you ever wanted to know about the neighbours.....After a few seconds of downloading, you will have all the information that you wanted but were too afraid to ask your friend/cousin/boss/neighbour/pretty much anybody". "The website is a piece of genius - a chance to know just how much more your neighbours paid for their property, how your best friend lied when she said she bought a bargain and how rich your boss must be if he can afford a property like that". The journalist, a young girl, boasts "I will assume that most people match my nosiness. The site is very entertaining......You have to pay £2 a shot, but the amusement value will be worth it".
The official UK government website that is willing to divulge your personal information for £2 per property is at http://www.landregisteronline.gov.uk.
Some years ago there was an outcry about police officers misusing the DVLC (now DVLA) computer system that stores the names and addresses of vehicle owners. Having seen a girl they desired, a police officer would call up her car number plate and obtain her address. The practice was largely curtailed by altering the computer systems so that whenever an enquiry was made, the name of the officer was logged together with time and reason given. Later, if a complaint was received about unwelcome advances, the officer's misdeeds could be held against him. A large number of local officials also have access to the system, including dog wardens seeking to identify the owner of an offending pooch.
More recently, in November 2005, there was an outcry about the DVLA apparently selling the names and addresses of car owners to commercial companies involved in the 'car clamping' business. For many years, many of these operators were practising 'at the edge of the law' with many being run by people with serious criminal records. This point was heavily stressed in the article.
The only way to restore some semblance to a right of privacy would seem to be to scrap the open access electoral register system, to have voting undertaken using records not available to anyone but election officers (who would need to be very carefully vetted) and then perhaps we could regain control of who could get to know our personal details. There is, incidentally, no good reason for candidates in local elections to know the names of everyone they go and canvass. I speak from much experience! There is even less reason for the data to be available in District, County or Parliamentary elections, because direct canvassing is so little practised.
It is interesting to note that the Electoral Commission (an independent body established by Act of Parliament) has come down strongly in favour of electoral rolls being used only for their principal intended purpose. The government, under pressure from marketing companies, decided not to accept advice from the Commission on this point. Details on their responses to several issues can be found at http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/commissionresponses.cfm.
The specific document dealing with the two types of electoral registers is at http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/files/dms/useofregister_6803-6295_E_N_S_W_.pdf.
The government also failed to accept the Commission's recommendation that people should automatically be 'opted out' of the edited register rather than be 'opted in' by default and have to tick a box to opt out. This is likely to have resulted in many people having their names on the edited registers when they might have preferred, had they read the forms fully, to opt out. For a professional library view on these issues, see the CILIP website at http://www.cilip.org.uk/committees/laca/er.html. (This direct link does not work, so try the basic cilip address and search for "laca electoral", then click on any of the strange documents, then click on "Electoral Registers and Access". And you thought librarians were there to help you find information easily.......... You can also try http://www.cilip.org.uk/committees/laca/laca.html. Even more indicative of local government officials with their undergarments in a twist is the news that "different local authorities have interpreted regulations for provision of electoral rolls in libraries in many different ways. Individual staff may be liable for a fine of up to £5000 for misuse of the register by a customer" http://www.cilip.org.uk/groups/isg/isgnews10.pdf , dating from Dec 2002.
I would be interested in any cases where people have been disadvantaged by having their name on a publicly accessible register. Please email me. Names or precise details will not be published and will be destroyed after the general information has been extracted. I would also be interested in any cases where information from the new-style full registers (issued Dec 2002) is improperly released into the public domain. This seems most likely to occur via sloppy practices in libraries or deliberate release by candidates in local elections, some of whom may stand for office just so they can get their hands on what could be commercially valuable data - or indeed to trace someone in the locality, perhaps a former partner or an estranged child. After all, becoming a candidate at a parish, district or county election costs virtually nothing.
In May 2003 I stood for election in Sidmouth. I was given full electoral rolls for the entire town despite I ended up (of course) standing in only one ward. Anyone eligible to stand as a candidate could have obtained and kept these records. The form I had to sign to obtain them does NOT say I have to give them back after the campaign is over - indeed there is every chance I could have lost them all whilst tramping the streets!
As a postscript, the Information Commissioner in the UK has called for a national debate on growing levels of state intrusion into people's lives. He has warned of Britain becoming a "surveillance society" in part because of the unknown amount of data sharing between various computer systems. The latest position on electoral registers is that some libraries are no longer holding them at all, some refuse to answer telephone enquiries but (helpfully!) others suggest that if people want to know who owns a particular house, they should simply ring the Land Registry. I tried this recently. A helpful man gave me the information I wanted, including the title number and when the house last changed hands.
He also confirmed that solicitors and other property professionals have on-line access to the database. "We extract our pound of flesh from them!" he explained, "Only members of the public with casual enquiries don't have to pay!". Moreover he volunteered the information that since access to electoral register data had been made more difficult, people were increasingly using the Land Registry's telephone enquiry service. This helpful telephone service has now been superceded by the online system (see above).
A question for Ministers:
When are we going to have some joined-up government in this important area of public policy?
If you wish to email a Minister you can start at http://www.gov.uk as the general site and (for example) navigate to the Home Office ( http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk ) who are busy "Building a safe, just and tolerant society".
You can then email mailto:email@example.com. Similar addresses are available for all Departments. Phoning the enquiry line usually enables you to find out the email addresses of Ministers in the Department. Why not send them all a few hundred emails? After all, they seem to have nothing better to do than invite people to intrude on your private business.
If you wish to complain about the Land Registry, try the Independent Complaints Reviewer at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. You are supposed to complain first to the Land Registry itself, but why bother?
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