Report calls for junk mail clampdownPrivacy watchdog wants tougher curbs

12 July 2008

A pile of letters

A wide-ranging clampdown on the sources of junk mail, cold-calling and spam email has been proposed by an official report.

The review - commissioned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown last year - recommended making it easier for the public to keep track of who holds personal information about them.

The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and director of the Wellcome Trust Dr Mark Walport said ministers should launch an inquiry into firms which gather personal information and sell it on.

They also recommended banning town halls from selling ‘edited’ versions of the electoral roll.

Electoral roll

Mr Thomas admitted this proposal amounted to a return to the pre-internet age, with copies of the electoral roll only available in public libraries.

‘We feel that selling the edited register is an unsatisfactory way for local authorities to treat personal information,’ said the report.

‘It sends a particularly poor message to the public that personal information collected for something as vital as participation in the democratic process can be sold to 'anyone for any purpose'.’

The report said the public should have a right to know with whom a company shares, exchanges or sells information.

Cold-callers

‘Opt outs’ on the internet should be made clearer, it added.

Such moves would make it far easier for the public to control who knows what, and limit the availability of contact details used by cold-callers and junk mailers.

It also said the Information Commissioner should have the power to impose massive fines against companies or government bodies which deliberately or recklessly breach privacy rules.

The 75-page report called for fines similar to those which can be imposed by the Financial Services Authority, which can run into millions.

Privacy threat

Internet sites which gather publicly-available details about individuals from electoral rolls, company registers, telephone directories and websites presented a ‘worrying threat to privacy’, it added.

The government should review the operation of these services and consider regulating them, the authors said.

Mr Thomas said the amount of personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo was still a problem.

He was working with companies to seek improvements but there was still a lot to be done, he added.

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