AS the election period unfolds some interesting legal issues and questions are creeping into public conversations. One of the most topical issues this past week concerned the propriety and legality of the information contained in the voter’s roll.
By Miriam Tose Majome
Questions and concerns were raised about the correctness of including people’s residential addresses and national registration numbers on the voter’s roll. Due to a combination of ignorance, mistrust and fear, some people suspected that Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) has messed up again by including these details, which they deem private and too personal to share publicly.
The suspicions are not unfounded as they are grounded in fears of invasion of privacy and identity theft. We shall address the right to privacy viz the voter’s roll and other publicly-held information.
We shall look at the difference between private and personal information and if there is any justification in the complaints and concerns.
What information is contained in the voter’s roll?
Section 20 of the Electoral Act prescribes that the voters roll should specify first and last names for all registered voters, their dates of birth, national registration numbers and the residential addresses where they normally reside, which is typically in the constituency they are registered to vote in as the election system is ward-based.
The inclusion of residential addresses raised the biggest objection and assertions were bandied around that public sharing of peoples’ addresses would increase the possibility of crimes such as identity fraud, stalking, kidnapping, housebreaking and petrol bombing among others.
These seemingly genuine concerns are, however, not backed by evidence as the increase or likelihood of the potential crimes due to the public availability of certain personal information has not been proved. It must be noted and stated that the inclusion of the personal details on the voter’s roll is correct and is in accordance with the law specifically Section 20 of the Act. To do otherwise and omit the specified details would be an infringement of the law.
The electoral roll of the United Kingdom is reported to hold information for 75 million people, but who are not all registered voters. The electoral roll includes registered voter’s full names, detailed addresses and length of the residency at their addresses, as well as the other household occupants they may share the address with and the previous household occupants as well as their neighbours’ details.
Inclusion of residential addresses is the standard format for voter’s rolls. Registered voters can be googled and their personal information like addresses and names can be obtained by anyone.
Right to privacy
Section 57 guarantees everyone the right to privacy namely they have the right;
a) not to have their home, premises or property entered without their permission
b) their person, home, premises or property searched
c) their possessions seized
d) the privacy of their communications infringed or
e) their health condition disclosed
According to www.identitytheft.org.uk identity theft involves the unauthorised taking a victim’s personal information and then using it in an unauthorised way for their own personal gain. Information that can be stolen and misused includes dates of birth, addresses, IDs, passports and bank details and other personal information.
The thief can commit any of a range of crimes with the stolen information like entering and exiting countries illegally on stolen passports, drug trafficking, smuggling prohibited goods, committing cybercrimes, money laundering, or stealing money from bank accounts and other crimes that have to do with impersonation.
There are also nuisances like unsolicited spam correspondence and telephone calls if phone numbers were stolen. Victims are always inconvenienced, as they could lose money and valuables and are put under scrutiny and suspicion of having committing the crimes in question.
Victims are often left with huge debts if their money has been stolen through identity theft. Identity theft is not violent and more often than not happens with their unwitting co-operation for example when they divulge their personal information online. Personal information is extracted from websites, customer lists, social media, directories and other sources, where personal data is kept.
Personal versus private information
There are some differences between personal and private information and that which can be shared and that which should not. And some that can be shared and some that should not.
Personal information includes opinions, preferences, first names and this is safe to share. Private information which is not safe to share includes bank details and Personal Identification Numbers, passwords. Private information is that which is confined to a particular person or circle and intended only for the persons or purposes concerned such as private communications to do with health status or legal advice.
However, not all personal information is private and confined to restricted circles. Personal information that is not private includes date of birth, physical addresses and ID numbers. The information is not private and can be shared publicly without breaching privacy.
Information pertaining to dates of birth, addresses and names is ordinarily held in public offices such as the Births Registry and Deeds Office, Companies Office and Courts. It is possible to inspect personal records for everyone and anyone at these public offices and even obtain copies.
For example copies of title deeds for virtually anyone are obtainable for a small charge at the Deeds Office. Therefore, fears that voters rolls could be used for dishonourable purposes are not specifically true, because the information contained therein is already in the public domain anyway and anyone can get it if they really want it.
Telephone directories have traditionally divulged people’s names and addresses. Telephone directories are now being published online making personal information more available to the entire world. Therefore, identity theft and crimes such as petrol bombings and kidnappings cannot be directly linked or isolated to the information in voters rolls.
Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer and a teacher. She writes in her personal capacity and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org