Saturday 23 February 2008

Personal data put online by councils

Sensitive personal and financial information, such as bank statements, social welfare information and pay slips submitted by individuals seeking planning permission, have been put online by local authorities. Olivia Kelly and Mark Hennessy report.

Local authorities across the State have been publishing planning files on the internet, with the sanction of the Department of the Environment, for several years. This information could be accessed directly through a council's website, but also by typing an applicant's name into an internet search engine.

Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney yesterday criticised the Government for failing to protect citizens' personal information.

While many of these files just contain information about the development applied for and the name and address of the applicant or their agents, thousands of files contain personal information which anyone with internet access can view and retain.

This information is typically attached to applications made by individuals for one-off rural housing, where applicants have been required to show a long-standing link to the local community and a need for housing within that community.

Applicants have submitted receipts of social welfare payments and letters from parish priests detailing their personal circumstances and family history in order to support applications. Among the other information available to view online are details of bank accounts, including account numbers and balances, credit card bills, pay slips, Revenue information, including PPS numbers, and medical reports.

These planning files are not only available online while the application is "live", ie until the planning authority has made a decision whether or not to grant permission, but remain on the council's website in perpetuity.

The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner said it began receiving complaints in relation to planning applications being posted online in mid-2006 after a number of people were contacted by companies who had secured their details online.

"People were being exposed to direct marketing from building societies or DIY firms who had got information from planning applications that they were building a house," assistant commissioner Tony Delaney said.

The commissioner's concerns were brought to the Department of Environment which agreed to develop new regulations and issue new guidelines to local authorities.

"The new guidelines state that pay slips, bank statements, or any extraneous personal data which are not relevant to the application should not be accepted as evidence.

"There is also a box on the application that people must tick if they want to receive direct marketing," Mr Delaney said.

Local authorities have also been instructed to block the information from the searches of websites such as Google, Mr Delaney said.

The new guidelines came into force last year. However, they do not apply to applications made before this date and personal information remains online unless an applicant specifically requests its removal.

Fingal County Council, which has been placing information online for around five years said it has up to 10,000 files online and it would not have the resources to review them.

The council said it was changing its application forms to ensure people were aware that the information received would be published online.

However, Mr Coveney said the Government should ensure that such sensitive personal data is not stored online.

The Irish Times

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