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Web business has fallen foul of the wrath of Richard Thomas, the United Kingdom Information Commissioner over the processing of personal data on their website. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has ordered the website to stop using personal information from electoral registers published before 2002, after finding the site in breach of the Data Protection Act. B4U is a company based in Birmingham in the UK. As their website says:

"Welcome to B4U, the webs only Free People Finder & Free Business Finder. Use Our Business Finder & People Finder for free. Try our Free Postcode Finder & Address Locator for free the Postcode finder works by using the Royal Mail PAF file. Get Free Directory Enquiries and Free Electoral Roll searches. Search over 13 million residential Directory Enquiries and 37 million Electoral Roll listings for free. The people finder service scours the electoral roll database, directory enquiries database, postcode finder database, people finder database and business finder database."

It's the electoral roll that has exercised the Information Commissioner. There are two versions in the UK, one where electors allow marketing purposes and the other where they do not. The Information Commissioner is concerned about data that has been used since before 2002, when the roll was split into thse two components - data that is way past its "use by date". After 2002, people filling in an electoral roll form could choose to be excluded from the public register, the one which allows marketing use. The ICO also says the company ignored requests from individuals for their details to be removed, which is in contravention of the Act. The Enforcement Notice, a notice that never expires and has substantive legal significance, instructs B4U to cease using this old data.

"People who complained to the ICO about included a police officer whose family's names and addresses, along with a map to their house, appeared on the website and an individual who had previously been a victim of identity fraud," an ICO statement said. "Both were concerned about the availability of their personal information and the fact that their requests to asking for their details to be removed had been ignored."

B4U says on its site

"All electoral roll removal requests should be done by searching for yourself and other household members and clicking the "remove my record" link in the site. We need 5 working days for all removals. If you prefer not to use this method or for urgent removals please send in by fax with your full address and postcode as it appears on the site to 0911 443 4433 calls are charged at £1.50 per minute. These will be within 1 working day. We STRICTLY DO NOT accept telephone removals without exception. "

But it seems that the Information Commissioner has received many complaints, some 1600 in all. Following an investigation, the ICO found that the personal information used by the website did not comply with the first principle of the Data Protection Act. This principle states that all personal information should be processed fairly and lawfully.

The ICO also found that damage or distress to individuals was likely to have been caused by information being processed in this way, which also opens uop the possibility of legal action for damages against B4U.

Mick Gorrill, Head of Regulatory Action at the ICO, said: "We take breaches of the Data Protection Act very seriously. As this case demonstrates, we will take action against organisations that don't process personal information in line with the requirements of the Act and cause significant concern to individuals. People have an important right under the Data Protection Act to know that their personal information is sufficiently protected."

The ICO will now investigate other companies using pre-2002 electoral register information in similar circumstances.

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