Does your council sell your personal data? Probably.
A list of the London councils that do
By eleanor blackwood
Thu 3 September 2020
We all know how valuable our data can be, and in recent years there’s been a growing desire from people to find out exactly what information organisations hold about them, how it might be used and who might be able to access it.
However, it may come as a surprise to learn that your local council may be selling off your personal information without you even realising it.
A Freedom of Information request carried out by our team can now reveal that the majority of London boroughs are profiting from selling their residents’ personal data - netting them almost £34,000 over the past two years.
What types of data can be sold?
An individual’s data appears on two council registers - the electoral register (known as the ‘full’ register), and the open register (known as the ‘edited’ register).
This may contain such information as:
- email address
- telephone number
- national insurance number
The full electoral register is a list of everyone who is registered to vote and is used for purposes relating to elections and referendums. Some other institutions are legally entitled to purchase the full register, including the courts to summon people to jury service, the police to investigate crimes and credit reference agencies to complete identity checks - but it may not be bought by the general public.
The open register, however, is an extract of the full register and is available for anyone to buy for whatever purpose they wish.
Which London Boroughs are selling data?
Our research has found that out of the 22 London boroughs that responded to the request, only four said that they did not sell on personal information. These were the London boroughs of Brent, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Bexley.
But other boroughs have earned thousands of pounds through the sale of personal data within the last two years.
- For example, the north London borough of Barnet earned £8340.20 between 2019-2020
- Lambeth Council netted £6369 in personal information sales in the last two years
- Richmond-upon-Thames made £5024.90 through selling data from the electoral register during the same time period
The open register can be purchased very cheaply. In July 2020, the City of London Council sold copies of the open register to two individuals at a cost of £13 each. It is often bought by companies who use it for direct marketing purposes, such as mail outs or leafleting.
For example, in 2019 the Royal Borough of Kingston and the London Borough of Sutton sold copies of the open register to an estate agency and a chain of Indian restaurants.
Out of the 22 London Boroughs that replied to our Freedom of Information request, 8 councils shared that they not only sell the full register but also open register to businesses and individuals. Others said they only sell full register or explained why our request is not subject to FOI.
Those who listed their sales of the open register to individuals and businesses are:
- City of London
- Richmond Upon Thames
Do London borough websites use tracking cookies?
The use of tracking cookies varies from borough to borough, with most London borough websites collecting data from users’ site visits. Users can find out what data is collected by viewing the individual councils’ privacy policies which are available on their websites.
However, there are some London boroughs which do not use tracking cookies on their websites. These include Barnet and Greenwich.
Requests for information are growing
There is a growing interest from people wanting to know what information councils hold about them, and this can be obtained through what’s known as a Subject Access Request (SAR). Thousands of such requests have been made across the capital over the last four years.
For example, the London Borough of Newham received 1454 SARs from residents between 2017-2020, Brent Council received 1073 and Tower Hamlets handled 960. These SARs included requests for housing records, social services files, human resources records and CCTV footage.
Of the councils that replied to our Freedom of Information request, most have said that they do receive complaints about their handling of personal data, further suggesting that people are becoming increasingly aware of the data that is held and shared about them. However, the number of individual complaints made each year is comparatively very low.
How to take control of your personal data
If you do not want your council to share or sell your data, you are able to opt out of the Open Register. At Right.ly we can help you to discover what information is held about you and give you the tools to help you opt out, so that you can take control of your personal data - and, crucially, who else may have access to it.