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Electoral Roll & Privacy

by jamesbaker on 17 December, 2012

As you may or may not know there are some changes occurring to the electoral roll. The main change is a move away from household registration, towards individual registration is enabled by theThe Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. is currently passing through parliament. These changes are going to have a significant impact on personal privacy, so I thought it might be useful to sum some of these up in a post.

Positive Impacts on Privacy

Each individual now has the choice to opt out of being on the edited roll – Previously the head of a household (or whoever happens to open the form) could fill it out for everyone living there. This could lead to situations whereby individuals are without their knowledge are entered onto the edited roll by another member of their household, without their knowledge. The edited roll is available to purchase commercially for marketing purposes making it very unfriendly to privacy concerns. Clearly moving towards a system where individuals had to opt-in before their private information is shared for marketing purposes would make sense.

Anonymous registration – This isn’t a result of individual registration, but as a recent change i’ve included it here. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 gives individuals who believe they maybe at risk from being on the roll the right to register anonymously. Your Electoral Registration Officer who can be contacted through your local authority has the power to register you anonymously, however there are often requirements such as providing evidence and justification for anonymous registration. Something that isn’t always available to people in vulnerable situations.

Change in the name of the edited / unedited roll? – It isn’t clear to most people what is meant by the terms edited and unedited roll. I have had confirmation from Lord Rennard that this is one issue that is being considered by parliament  Making it explicitly clear what people are doing when they choose to go on the unedited or edited roll and its privacy implications would be an improvement.

Negative impacts for privacy

Data-Matching– Ahead of the introduction of the individual register the Government is allowing officials to trawl through a series of databases in order to try find people who are not on the roll. The Electoral Registration Data Schemes (no. 2) Order 2012 enables further pilots of data-matching. The results of these pilots will then be passed onto the Electoral Commission who will analysis how useful they have been. Any data-matching schemes such as this provide a privacy risk, as information will have to be extracted from a range of systems, and passed onto another organisation to match them together. These data-sharing protocols create a risk of data loss, and also for data-theft. In addition it could set a precedent for future data-sharing for other possible administrative purposes.

Thankfully people ‘found’ through these schemes will not be automatically added to the electoral roll. They will instead be sent a letter inviting them to register onto the new individual roll. It is interesting to note (Hat tip David Moss) that the DVLA are currently refusing to take part in these pilots (column 474). Could this be because they have privacy concerns or because around 32% of its records contain errors? 

Function Creep – An individual electoral roll database will be a more lucrative target for exploitation by other organisations. Currently the unedited full roll can be sold to government departments, used for crime prevention purposes, used for vetting job applicants and also given to credit reference agencies. A register based on individuals, rather than households will arguably be a move closer towards something akin to a national identity database. Further restricting the uses the roll can be used for, would go some way to prevent such function creep.

Providing more personal data – In order for officials to check the identity of people registering, individuals will be required to supply more personal information such as a date of birth and a national insurance number. Both these pieces of information can be useful to criminals seeking to commit identify fraud. There is clearly an increased risk this information could fall into the wrong hands through stolen post, or theft from elections offices.

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