Should public data be available online?

The evidence would suggest that we can’t really make up our minds.

Three examples …

1. Electoral Roll

This includes the name and address of everybody who has enrolled to vote.

Anybody can view the details by going to a library or post shop. According to the Electoral Commission website this is “a part of the open democratic process of New Zealand”.

But, you can’t search online, other than to view your own details (if you make any changes they give you a page to print, sign and return).

While this could in theory be used to access others details (if you know their full name and birthdate) the site makes it clear that it is an offence to do that.

2. Motor Vehicle Register

This includes the name and address of everybody who owns a vehicle, indexed by number plate (presumably?)

Anybody can view these details for a specific vehicle by going to an LTSA agent and paying a small fee.

But, you can’t search online, or even submit a request online.

In 2006, following a story on Fair Go, the Minister of Transport announced that he was in favour of restricting access to this register for privacy reasons. This was welcomed by the Privacy Commissioner. I can’t tell if anything came of this or not (if somebody knows please add a comment below, or let me know and I’ll update this post).

3. Companies Office

This includes the name, home address and shareholding details of anybody who is a director or shareholder of a company.

For a number of years the Companies Office has been encouraging people to use their online services to register and update company details. As part of this they provide a full search facility, which allows anybody to look up any of the details they hold, including scanned copies of signed forms etc.

In the past there you had to pay a small fee to search the register, but now it is completely free.

I can’t imagine what the Privacy Commissioner thinks of that! :-)

Why the inconsistencies, I wonder?

Some questions…

Q: Is there a good reason for collecting the data in the first place?
Q: Should the data be available to the public?
Q: How do you stop this from being abused?

In each of these examples a big part of the reason for collecting the data is to make it available to other interested people. So, restricting access by only making the data available in printed form and only in certain locations – a.k.a. security by obscurity – doesn’t seem especially smart.

Likewise just publishing the database online for anybody and everybody to trawl through when they are bored seems to be out of line with the purpose of collecting and making the data available – it would be counter-productive if people decided to not submit information, or provide incorrect information, just to protect their own privacy.

I reckon that, provided it’s done smartly, making the data available online is actually the solution to the problem, not the cause.

The data should be available to anybody, but we should remove the anonymity of the person searching.

In order to search and view the data you should have to register and provide your own details (name and address etc – this could even be validated with a code sent in the mail if required), and every search should be logged and able to be queried. So, you can see my data. But, quid-pro-quo, I can also see that you’ve seen my data, and see your details.

I think a system like this could be self-regulating.

The public will be less likely to abuse the system, in the same way as employees who know their internet usage is being logged are unlikely to view dodgy websites. And, the authorities will be able to quickly identify suspicious usage, and track down the offenders.

What do you think?

Tell me why this wouldn’t work.

4 thoughts on “Transparency”

  1. Hi,
    You make very good points about the transparency of the Companies Office.
    I have personally tracked down a director of a non-profit using the companies web-site and even though I had to guess signatures etc, with the help of the white pages I managed to contact the director at home to resolve a very important issue with his organisation during the weekend.
    So, yes it was easy to get hold of him.
    And I was shocked at how easy it was.
    It is limited to public companies and non-profits, it doesn’t include private Trusts which can operate as shields for some of this information, not directorships though.
    Ownership and directorships are optional and effect a smaller group of people than either of the other two classes above.

    Yes we should do something, I am not entirely sure that your solution is the best solution, as we would rely completely on the Companies office to attempt to prosecute any attempt after the fact, and the individual in question would be hard to identify without losing the companies office ‘lightweight’ approach to user identification (with the associated costs involved of implementing a heavyweight solution).

    Maybe the Companies office could (and should) restrict director searches and person searches, because if Search is limited then access to arbitrary private data is also limited.

    Come to think of it, if an individual wants to not have their information on the Companies web-site, they do not have a lot of options, although I suspect that they could operate under an alias (and probably break the law doing so).

    Oh dear, I just looked at Telecoms register and it seems that no-one uses a Law office or other form of indirection, if it is legal.
    All the directors home addresses are fully detailed.


  2. I personally think this is an awesome idea, and I believe that open information and trust in the community often work. Although I think that there would need to be some sort of system in place to report abuse. It’s all very well knowing someone dodgey is looking at my details, but what do I do about it?

    I think you can still access people’s registration information by going to the post office, but you have to provide a good excuse as well as pay the fee now.

    @ Andrew: Directors must list a current residential address, and may not provide a post office box or any other alias.

  3. I am a big supporter of information transparency in the public sector. When moving here from Norway now 4 years ago I was suprised to find very basic information such as people’s names and addresses being protected in the name of privacy. I have since then relised that Norway is the exception and New Zealand is simply doing what most other countries does.

    New Zealand and Norway are quite simillar countries. They have about the same land mass and population. They are both somewhat isolated by longtitude, have the same living standard a a labour run government.

    So why are things so sifferent?

    In New Zealand I find it very hard to obtain peoples contact details. If I loose my mobile phone and don’t have a backup and I have to go through a huge detective’s process with my network to get back your phone number or address.
    In Norway anyone can use a government website to locate the adress of any person, or by (partial) address search find out their name. This is not considered to be a privacy concern but a public service.
    Phone numbers is easy to obtain as well. Unless you choose to be taken off the list (very few people do) you will be listed in a central phone directory (land line and mobile phone) that is used by dozen 018-like companies and the information is free (besides the advertising). Try and type in my name or my phone number (41025100).

    This is only one example. There is lots more to be said about the information access in the two countries. But its food for though..


  4. I don’t get it. Why shouldn’t anyone be able to search the companies database? I often use it to check out who owns a company that I might be dealing with and to see how long they’ve been in business. Avoiding people who have only just gone into business but claim huge numbers of customers is a benefit in itself.

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