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Public Domain that's too public

January 2008

I’m concerned about information that is in the public domain. Not that I object to important information being openly available – generally, if something is public knowledge it discourages rogues and mountebanks.

However, there is lots of information about us all out there, and hitherto this has not been too much of a worry, especially if one has nothing to hide.

But the internet has rather altered the balance; it makes the information so much easier to collect. In the olden days, just because a fact was public did not mean it was very easy to reach. For example, to find the details of a company director from Companies House involved a personal visit to London or Cardiff, queuing, paying a fee, waiting and then wrestling with a microfilm viewer. You had to be a bit determined to do it, and you left a trail when you did.

The same was true of the electoral roll and other records – it was accessible, but you had to go somewhere to look at it. It wasn’t laid out on a plate.

That has all changed, or “improved,” as we are told. Almost all public records are now stored digitally, and once that’s done there is no reason, technically, why they can’t be made available to anyone with an internet connection. And why not? If it’s in the public domain, it should be available to the public, shouldn’t it?

Well, possibly; but look out, here comes an unintended consequence: by making the electoral roll available online it is open to any old rascal in (for example) Ruritania to gather the names and addresses of those who live in your street without leaving his fireside.

Having done that, it can be shortish work to find out find out online what you all paid for your houses, who and when you married, you wife’s and mother’s maiden names, your birthday and if you are a director or shareholder of any companies. They can see if anyone in your road has been through the insolvency courts, or applied for planning consent and lots more.

It gets worse – if the Ruritanian desperadoes really know what they are doing, your mobile phone records are easy to get, as well as how many penalty points you have on your driving licence and if your car has a valid MOT.

At its most innocent, this can be used to produce lists of people with certain characteristics, with a view perhaps to targeting them with some sort of marketing effort, but the motivation may be more sinister.

I might add that this is nearly all stuff that even I know how to do, and I’m not especially expert. What’s more, it’s all perfectly legal. I’ve put some of the links here.

For the mobile phone records you do have to say that you need them to prevent a crime happening, but it’s a request that is routinely agreed to if it comes in the right form and from a plausible source (like a Private Detective).

So, this “improvement” in the availability of information has produced, guess what, a threat to our privacy.

But don’t panic. I believe that we will see a gradual removal of internet access to these records. It’s the only sensible answer, and it’s cheap to do; you just switch it off.

In fact, if any prospective government wants to get some good publicity, they might promise to do just that – it won’t be a difficult promise to keep, because I think it is likely to happen without them in any event. The Land Registry, for example, has already recently ditched the ability to download copies of title deeds, because they were being regularly used for fraudulent land transactions. Anyone wanting them now has to apply in writing or visit a Land Registry office and fill in a form.

My my – someone’s discovered, again, that the old ways work better.