In this article we look at how to minimise the visibility of your personal information in online public records, without losing the benefits that online administration brings.
It is now common knowledge that what you share on social media may come back to haunt you, but most of us are less aware of the other traces we leave on the web. We may take care not to post sensitive photographs on Instagram, but we are probably less worried about the information we give to organisations we trust, like government agencies. Unfortunately, much of the information we deem private is a matter of public record, and most public records are accessible online. This means that by registering to vote or filing documents on behalf of your company, you may inadvertently have made your home address, date of birth or even your signature available for anyone to find.
Find out what's out there
Public records are nothing new, but the availability of this information online creates a heightened level of risk. This is particularly true for high-profile and high net worth individuals whose confidential information may be particularly sensitive. Whereas in the past an individual would have had to submit formal requests in writing to multiple government agencies (if not visit them in person) to obtain copies of their personal information, most of these records can now be accessed by anyone online. To make matters worse, online information aggregators such as credit reference agencies and public directories provide the opportunity to purchase personal data in packages, eliminating the legwork needed to piece this information together.
From data protection and copyright law to agency-specific regulations, there are various legal steps you can take to remove your personal information. The first step is to find out what's out there. This should include, but go beyond, a simple Google search. For a comprehensive approach, it is worth considering the use of cyber and digital intelligence experts who can map your online presence for you, including on the dark and wider deep web. This will alert you to risk areas and allow you to identify information which you may wish to amend, remove or take alternative precautions against. It is then a case of dealing with each public record in turn to determine what action can be taken to minimise your online presence.
The electoral register
The benefits of being on the electoral register are obvious, but it is also one of the easiest ways to make your name, home address, national insurance number, nationality and age publicly available. The full electoral register is used by government departments, credit reference agencies and political parties to ensure voter eligibility as well as to perform money laundering and credit checks. Its use is strictly limited by law, but an extract of the electoral register known as the 'open register' can be bought by anyone to confirm name and address details.
You can choose whether or not to have your personal details included in the open version of the register.
By opting out of the open register you can prevent your personal information and contact details from being bought and sold to online directories and telephone marketing firms, protecting both your privacy and your sanity.
The Land Registry in England and Wales provides a comprehensive register of property ownership and mortgages. As such, the ownership of all freehold and leasehold property in England and Wales is a matter of public record. This naturally gives rise to privacy and security concerns, particularly among high net worth and/or high profile individuals. The risks are reduced by the fact that the register can only be searched by property and not by named individuals, meaning that in reality it is not a straightforward way of identifying an individual's home address. Additional privacy protection can include utilising corporate entities to purchase property although note the requirements relating to companies set out below and also the criticism that individuals have previously faced for using companies (including those registered in other jurisdictions) to purchase property.
Planning applications and objections
As Ed Sheeran will know, making a planning application inevitably involves publicising details of your home that you would probably prefer to keep private. This is particularly true where the application is for improvements to your home security. There are, however, steps you can take to address this issue.
It is possible to minimise the visibility of planning applications containing sensitive information by discussing the application in advance with the relevant planning authority. This is usual for applications from the diplomatic community and owners of critical national infrastructure who may make a request to keep such information separate from the openly available planning register. Bear in mind that the approaches of local planning authorities will differ and whilst most do not make pre-application advice public, some do. Check before you attend any meeting. An additional step could be to transfer ownership of the relevant property to a trust company as ownership details will be publicly available. Consideration should be given to reducing the level of detail revealed in plans and associated planning statements. It is also important to seek legal advice to ensure that these applications comply with statutory requirements and if necessary are robust in anticipation of a third party challenge and judicial review.
Before making an objection to a planning proposal, it is worth considering that objections are available for public inspection. Many planning authorities require you to disclose your name and home address if you wish to make an objection. However, there is no statutory requirement for planning authorities to make telephone numbers, email addresses or signatures available for inspection online and requests can be made on data protection grounds for this information to be redacted. In practice there is an inconsistency of application by planning authorities and a risk of human error meaning that information could be publicised in spite of a redaction request.
There are also simple steps you can take to protect your information, for example by asking an agent/solicitor to submit the objection on your behalf to anonymise the objection as much as possible. It is also advisable to send planning objections as attachments rather than including them in the body of the email, so that they can be published without disclosing your email address. Another option is to use a separate email address to send information that might end up in the public domain. Finally, when sending planning objections by post you should print, rather than sign your name, to avoid the publication of your signature.
In return for limited liability, companies are required to be open and transparent by providing information to the public record at Companies House. As a result, a quick online search can provide personal details about any company director or owner including their full name, the year and month in which they were born, their nationality, occupation and country of residence. If you are not careful, you can also end up inadvertently disclosing your signature and home address. Meanwhile, details of company shareholders are also readily available.
Recent changes in the law mean that it is now possible to apply to Companies House to suppress all records which contain your home address on publicly available documents. This can reduce your physical and online vulnerability. There are some exceptions, however, where the removal of your home address becomes difficult. It is therefore important to seek legal advice when setting up a company to ensure you do not end up disclosing vulnerable information that you will later be unable to remove.
While the disclosure of some personal information is unavoidable for company directors and owners, steps can be taken to avoid the disclosure of particularly sensitive information. To avoid publishing your signature online, documents filed electronically should be signed using your company's authentication code. You should also ensure that you do not register your residential address as your correspondence address or as your company's registered office address on any documents, even if you run your company from home. Where you are already using your home address, applications can be made to amend this.
In addition to Companies House, the UK has in place a regime requiring all companies to have in place and maintain a register of persons with significant control (PSC), which is publicly accessible. Importantly, this is not a register of beneficial ownership but a register of those individuals who have (by virtue of legal rights) or exercise (by virtue of the practical realities) significant influence or control over entities or trusts (UK and overseas) within a corporate structure. Companies must look up through their structure to determine whether there are any PSCs. This requires careful analysis but also creates the potential for individuals to be identified as being associated with a particular company where they might previously have relied on the ability to remain behind the corporate veil. The PSC register is indicative of the general policy shift towards transparency, which has been reflected in much of the recent negative media coverage concerning the tax and other private affairs of wealthy individuals.
Less is more
It is unfortunately inevitable that there will nearly always be some traces of your information online. However, with careful planning and by seeking specialist advice where it is needed, you can reduce the chances of information being particularly sensitive or widely available. It is important to remember that it is much harder to remove information once it has already been disseminated. It is therefore best to take appropriate precautions, review the position from time to time, and bear in mind that when it comes to online disclosure, less is more. A final caveat is the general move towards transparency noted above. Any steps designed to reduce online disclosure must of course take into account all legal obligations and consider the potential reputational risk of maintaining privacy.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, September 2018