Department ‘strongly advised’ not to put personal data online

Data Protection Commissioner warns of potential for abuse and invasion of privacy

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton was told the information was “a matter of public record” and was being used for the purpose it was gathered. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton was told the information was “a matter of public record” and was being used for the purpose it was gathered. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

 

Publishing details of all births, marriages and civil partnerships on the internet would be a “fundamental incursion into the privacy of individuals” and carries the risk of abuse, the Data Protection Commissioner warned.

On whether a general provision should be added to proposed legislation to enable “widespread” access to such information, the commissioner’s office said it would “advise strongly” that this should not be done.

In a submission to the Department of Public Expenditure on its data-sharing and governance policy paper, the commissioner said the current system of permitting access to civil registration information based on “one-off” requests appeared to be functioning adequately.

It was “striking an appropriate balance between providing access to the public to such information and not infringing the privacy rights of individuals”.

Risk of abuse

“Allowing such information to be made easily available in an electronic open environment carries the risk of abuse, particularly in relation to identity fraud as such information can reveal private answers to security questions that many data controllers require, ie date of birth, mother’s maiden name, area of registration/birth.”

 

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was forced last July to remove civil registration data from its irishgenealogy.ie* website under threat of enforcement action. Its availability had been drawn to the attention of the commissioner by The Irish Times after a concern was raised by a member of the public about the availability of their own details on the site.

Searchable

Birth information as recent as 2013 was available and it was entirely searchable even by guessing date ranges, which allowed anyone to capture a huge amount of personal information on individuals and their families.

 

At the time, the Department of Social Protection, which provided access to the General Register Office data, told Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton the information was “a matter of public record” and was being used for the purpose it was gathered. The department was therefore “unclear” where data protection law had been breached.

In its own submission on the data-sharing paper published in August, the department appears to concede there is an issue with sharing registration information online. It considered that a legislative provision to enable access to births, marriages and civil partnership data was “a valuable proposal”.

“It need not mean that the wider public have access to such data. But this should anticipate use and possible misuse of data.”


The department said “careful consideration” was required. But it added: “The genealogy.ie * (sic) site issue shows that information available for good reasons could be used in conjunction with other information for criminal actions.”


An amendment to the recent Civil Registration Bill will allow access online to registers of births over 100 years old, marriages over 75 years old and deaths over 50 years old.

* This article was edited on Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 to correct an error.