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New voting rules leave innocent Brits at risk of SPAM TSUNAMI

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Changes to the electoral registration system have sparked fears that Britons are about to be swamped by a tsunami of unwanted spam from companies that harvest and sell on citizens' personal data.

The Register has learned that a number of councils across the UK have not properly informed residents how to enter their details on the electoral register without making their information available to the marketing industry, which delights in spamming us by post, phone and email.

The Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO) confirmed it had received a "number of concerns from members of the public" over the issue.

These complaints were sparked by a change to the way in which voters opt in or out of making their personal information available to marketers. Letters have been sent to voters across the country explaining the changes. But these have left many Britons confused and worried that their details would be made openly available to the spam industry.

Registering to vote

The problem lies in the distinction between the closed and the open electoral roll, which used to be called the edited register. Currently, voters are offered the choice to tick a box and put themselves on the open register each time they fill in an electoral registration form, a choice which leaves them vulnerable to having their details sold to spam marketers.

To avoid ending up on the spam register, voters must tick a box opting out of the open register each time they fill in an electoral registration form, which generally happens once a year.

Under the new system, which is called Individual Electoral Registration, their choice is remembered, which means that if they accidentally ticked the box and put themselves on the open register, they will be spammed indefinitely until they work out the correct bureaucratic procedure to remove themselves from it once and for all.

The form must now be filled in by each member of a home, rather than the whole household, offering spammers a further opportunity to bombard residents with unwanted promotions.

An ICO spokesman said: "We are aware that councils have recently written to individuals to explain the changes. The letters confirm whether the person’s details are currently on the open register. However, we know that some people have found the wording of the letter confusing when it describes how the open register works. This underlines the importance of moving to individual registration, because many people are exercising this choice for the first time and may not be aware of choices made on their behalf in the past."

Except it doesn't quite work like that in practice

The Register has received a number of complaints about the way in which councils have added people to the open register.

Richard Cox lives in the Vale of Glamorgan near Cardiff in South Wales. Fiercely protective of his privacy, the Welshman told his council a number of times that he did not want to be on the open register.

However, when he was out of his home, a canvasser tasked with signing people up to the electoral register asked his son to fill in the form.

Cox's 30-year-old son neglected to tick the opt-out box and so Cox found himself on the open register.

"The council agreed to take me off permanently, but did not do the same for other people living in my house. This is very odd behaviour for officers employed in the the interest of local people, rather than marketers," he told El Reg.

Cox managed to remove his household from the open register and has reported the issue to the ICO. However, he still has concerns about spam.

"You can't un-ring a bell,” added Cox. “This is a considerable invasion of privacy and makes my home address searchable for anyone from marketers to criminals. They should pay compensation to anyone who ended up on the open register."

Alan Brown, who works at University College London, lives in the Mole Valley. He opted out of the open register but found himself on it earlier this year, again after a canvasser came to the door and rushed him into filling in a form. Now, even though he has always been ex-directory, he has found himself on 192.com, which he took as evidence that his details had been published on the open register.

"One you have opted out, you should always be opted out," he said. "I am now getting much more marketing and am really pissed off. Heads should be rolling over this. If someone has opted out of having their information being published, you should not be able to change that permission without explicit authorisation."

Legal victory - but how long will it last?

Some councils unilaterally kept their constituents off the open register by "pre-ticking" the opt out box. But following a legal battle brought by the website 192.com against this practice, most councils no longer do this.

The site describes itself as the "de facto standard search engine for finding people, businesses and places in the UK" and has an obvious interest in getting access to as many voters' details as possible, as its business model relies on offering this information to subscribers. It wanted councils to stop pre-ticking the opt out box, perhaps in the hope that more voters would end up on the open register.

Advice from the Electoral Commission (PDF) states that although voters have the right to permanently strike themselves off the spam register, individual councils should not pre-tick the opt-out box.

Earlier this year, some 15 councils successfully fended off 192.com after it claimed the practice of pre-ticking was "unlawful".

However, the case didn't even go to court after the directory website backed down. After the victory, an electoral registration officer for Manchester City Council said: "There was an important principle at stake here and working together we have defended it."

The new form of voter registration will go live in 2015, but letters have already been sent explaining the changes.

"It’s not a better or worse system," 192.com's CEO Keith Marsden told us. "Time will tell."

Have you ended up on the open register and been bombarded with spam? Get in touch in confidence and let us know. ®

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