Data Protection Commissioner

CASE STUDY 5/97

Use of Electoral Register to prepare mailing lists and for other purposes not related to its primary function – concerns about such use of publicly available information

In my Annual Reports for both 1995 and 1996 I referred to cases in which people had complained to me about uses of information about them which had been obtained from the Electoral Register. During 1997 there was again a significant number of complaints from people who had received direct mailings where the names and addresses had come from the Electoral Register. Two of these complaints related to a promotion for an alcoholic drink. Several others were from people who had received direct mailings from a financial institution which was a newcomer to the Irish market.

Once again, I was obliged to tell the complainants that the matter fell outside my remit because section 1(4)(b) of the Act provides that the Act does not apply to "personal data consisting of information that the person keeping the data is required by law to make available to the public". The only remedy available to them was to request the companies concerned, under section 2(7), to desist from using their personal data for direct marketing. A number of the complainants expressed in strong terms their disappointment that the Act did not give protection against what they considered to be an inappropriate use of the Electoral Register and an invasion of their privacy.

In another case, a registered adoption agency whose job is to trace birth parents of adopted children sought a copy of the Electoral Register on CD ROM from a local authority. The local authority contacted my Office for advice. In this case also I explained that the the Electoral Register, in the hands of a local authority, is excluded from the remit of the Act by section 1(4). However I also explained my concern in principle about uses of the Register by other parties for purposes other than that for which it was compiled. I pointed out that if such uses became widespread then the Register could well be brought into disrepute - perhaps to the point where some people chose not to register to vote at all.






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