Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Blogging, Public Office and Privacy

One of the big debates in the parenting 'blogosphere' is just how much you should share about yourself and your family online. Some people don't want their nearest and dearest to even know that they blog, while others are concerned about less savoury characters having access to details which could locate their children. It's a difficult call because, in these days of cyber surveillance, even the most anonymous blogger can be tracked down with enough persistence.

When I see people post about it I sympathise, but mostly refrain from commenting. I don't worry about people being able to work out where I live from my blog. I don't even worry they'll be able to work out what I'm doing on any particular date, or where my child's future schools are. They don't need to put in that much effort.

You see, a requirement of my job is that my name, address, telephone number, and any number of other personal details are in the public domain.

What is this job which requires such disclosure? I'm an elected councillor for Torfaen County Borough Council. You've probably never heard of it, but the onus placed on me is placed on around 20,000 other county and borough councillors around the country, plus thousands more unpaid community, town and parish councillors. When you stand for election, your address becomes public domain. If you are elected it gets plastered over the web, printed in council newsletters, and put up on notice boards. You can choose to ask people to only contact you care of the council - but you will be discouraged from doing so, on the grounds it reflects badly on the transparency of the organisation. The public purse is paying you £13k per annum, in return you should be contactable at all times of the day and night.

TCBC contact page for Jessica Powell
Screenshot of my page of Torfaen's councillor directory.

Nuisance phone calls, damage to personal property, and threatening mail is all par for the course. Because some people will take violent exception to your views on anything from litter to planning decisions; a quick google search brought up the stories of numerous councillors who have been forced to rethink their open contact policy after receiving death threats. (See HERE, HERE, and HERE.) The most common problems, unsurprisingly, are around identity theft and fraud. When I started this job I was living back with my parents, so it was their address which was public. That was enough for people to use it to take out mobile phone and utility contracts they never bothered to pay. My poor mum wasted hours on the phone dealing with irate companies hoping to speak to the transgressor; the council wanted to know why council tax wasn't being paid for this mysterious extra occupant, and we had the pleasure of a bailiff turning up at the door demanding payment.

Then there is the register of public interests. You need to declare your pecuniary interests, such as properties you own or occupy, and details of your employment. You also need to declare other interests which are in the public, well, interest, even if you're not financially benefiting from them. This will include the charities and other organisations you sit on the board of / are a member of / give money to, trade union membership, and any gifts or hospitality you receive in connection with your official duties above the value of £25. (I'm still waiting for that last one to be an issue...) You can see my declaration of interests HERE, which makes me realise that a) mine is massively out of date, and b) even my signature is out there in the public domain!

The declaration of interests is a constant ongoing process. Every time you discuss something which you have a personal interest in at a meeting, you need to declare it. For instance, you could be considering a planning application for a distant relation, that's likely to be a personal but non-prejudicial (i.e. you can still take part in the decision) interest, or you could be discussing the school your child attends - that one would be personal and prejudicial. The result is that information about your children's schooling, your relatives' addresses and employment, and scores of other details will end up in the public domain when the minutes of the meeting are published and put on the internet. These days lots of meetings are webcast live, so you don't even need to wait for the clerk to finish writing their notes up.

41% of all fraud is identity fraud and numbers are increasing
Credit: cifas.org.uk, "Just a single piece of personal information, such as your date of birth, can be used to commit fraud in your name. So imagine what a fraudster can do with a lot of personal information."

It's not just politicians and their families affected by these issues, anybody actively involved in public life will be expected to publish certain details. Addresses of charity trustees are not usually made public, but it doesn't take a technological whiz to tap what is public into google and find what they're looking for. For example, HERE is the BBC Trust's register of interests - you'll be able to see what I mean. In an age where we're all bombarded with how important it is to protect our personal data, and the data of those around us, it's just a little hypocritical that we are insisting on the publication of ever more information about people who are willing to give up their time and energy for the greater good.

Because you might think I'm irresponsible for choosing to blog about myself and my family. You might think it's my own damn fault for choosing to run for council - I'm perfectly entitled to stand down if I don't like the status quo. But I do think there should be a debate about the risk run by people who want to help their local communities by becoming charity trustees, sitting on boards, and generally getting involved. We should be asking ourselves whether there is any correlation between the fact that one of the most underrepresented groups in governance - women with young children - is also one of the groups most worried about their family's privacy?

The answer might be no. We may well decide that the public interest overrides the personal. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't bother having the discussion.





A Bit Of EverythingAnd then the fun began...Cuddle FairyMummuddlingthroughMy Random Musings

23 comments:

  1. This really scares me seeing so many of your details out there. I understand that you have kind of made your peace with it but I totally agree that there is transparency and then there is the right to a private life - I think something should change - the way the world is these days it's just not fair on you and your family (who of course did not sign up and don't really have any say in the matter). Thanks for linking Jess X #thetruthabout

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    1. I never really thought about it until I had Marianna, but once she arrived I couldn't help but worry about the what-ifs and maybes. I don't know the answer, but I do think it needs to be looked at because it just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. x

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  2. This is all news to me, I had no idea this level of transparency was required for such positions. I'm not sure whether the same is true in New Zealand or not... We leave little breadcrumbs of identity all over the show when we're on the internet (even when we're not blogging), and it only takes someone with the right skills to put the pieces together and find out more about us than we'd like them to know. I don't believe in leaving myself open to victimisation, but I've also learned from being a target of theft that you can be as cautious as you like but if someone wants to take something of yours, they will regardless. Same with personal info, I guess.

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    1. I agree, but I think for me it's just the total ease with which people have access to your information in this situation. You don't need to follow the breadcrumbs even, you just put the name into google and off you go.

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  3. Well done you! It only makes clear how much you are willing to make a difference. I wish more people involved in politics and local council would have personal blogs, I would trust them much more #abitofeverything

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    1. Aw, thanks, hun. I do have wobbles with it, I must admit, but overall it is a really rewarding job, especially when you're able to see stuff you've been really involved with come to fruition. I think a lot of it is just demographics - most councillors are a lot older, with the knock on that many aren't that comfortable with social media and computers. x

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  4. I think if someone wants to find about all about you it is actually not that hard, but wow threatening mail that must be awful x

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    1. Yeah, I've never had anything too bad but you hear some absolute horror stories x

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  5. This is very interesting and thought provoking. I think when you become a parent, there is a natural tendency to try to protect your children as much as possible and with all the hype about cyber predators, yes, you tend to get more worried. I don't have an answer...But kudos to you for stepping up! Thanks for sharing with #abitofeverything

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    1. Yeah, it is a difficult one, especially when there's so much emphasis on keeping personal data safe. x

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  6. Gosh I didn't know such a huge amount of information should be made available to the public as a Councillor - that is a little scary. I find the whole concept of personal data in the private domain a little overwhelming, which is why I do try and keep mine to a sensible level on the blog but I'm sure there are lots of other ways people can find out about me if they want to!! Thanks for linking this up to #coolmumclub lovely x

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    1. The annoying thing is that they're always asking for more, and some of the 'interests' seem so tenuous. I mean, giving a few quid to a charity doesn't really give you a vested interest in it. x

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  7. This is very interesting, I had no idea.
    I do often worry about what info I share on my blog - I try not to use the kids names for example.

    Thanks for sharing.
    #effitfriday

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    1. It is scary sometimes, especially when there's a big case in the press or whatever. x

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  8. I'm not really concerned about the amount of information about me there is out there - because of the nature of my job (I'm a journalist) and the type of stories I cover (often first person pieces about myself) there's not much a persistent person couldn't find out. I don't really see it as a threat though! #effitfriday

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  9. wow. I found this super interesting. I decided to just put my info out there. I try to talk about living in "A village" rather than using names etc but anyone can easily figure out where i am. Angela

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    1. Yeah, I always kind of think 'in for a penny, in for a pound' :)

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  10. This is such an interesting post and, even though I knew that councillors did this, it is something that I hadn't thought about much. I am with moderate mum - well done you on making a difference. Keep up the great work. #thetruthabout

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    1. It's really strict - one of my colleagues forgot to declare an interest, then reported it after the meeting. She was still suspended for two months! x

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  11. I think you may have hit the nail on the head re the most under represented group. I had no idea you needed to be so transparent, I would feel un easy with it. But then my blog started anonymously and then I felt compelled to put my photo and name to it and slowly more photos of Monkey. It kinda took over. I guess what matters is that you are making a difference in the job your do, you enjoy it and take reward from helping others? Thank you for joining us at #BloggerClubUK hope to see you again next week x

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    1. It's not much of an issue for me personally - beyond the signature thing, I'm not a fan of that - but I do think it puts people off once they start looking into it. The nature of the job is that a lot of people won't like you, so it can be worrying to have so much access to your personal info. x

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  12. I had no idea how much information you had to have publicly shown to be a counsellor. I'm quite surprised to be honest. I can understand that some things might be of public interest to give people a idea of the values of someone they are voting for, but I really can't see how your home address is relevant to anyone who isn't dishonest. Having said that, it's pretty easy to find the home address of anyone on the electoral role just by knowing their name and typing it into Google! Really enjoyed this post :)
    Thanks for linking up to #effitfriday
    Debbie

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    1. I don't think it's widely known at all, to be honest, but they keep getting stricter and stricter with it all the time. The thing that really bothers me (aside from the publicising of signatures, I just think that's asking for trouble) is the recording of stuff to do with underage children - schools, clubs, societies, etc. I don't know how they'd find a way around it, because if you need to declare an interest there's obviously a reason why, but it does sit uncomfortable with me. x

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