Unequal impacts of open registers of ownership

Header image: Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

mySociety and SpendNetwork have been working on a project for the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) Global Digital Marketplace Programme and the Prosperity Fund Global Anti-Corruption programme, led by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), around beneficial ownership in public procurement. This is one of a series of posts about that work

A key privacy concern with beneficial ownership, and especially open registers of beneficial ownership, is that it is making private information publicly accessible. As an Engine Room/OpenOwnership report on the subject says:

Justifying open registers therefore depends on answering two important questions: first, why is a central register necessary, as opposed to company reporting obligations, or trusts and corporate service providers (‘TCSP’) regulation? Second, why must the central register be publicly accessible, rather than closed or limited-access?

Common across the countries we looked at as part of this research was concern from government stakeholders and the private sector about open registers, even while there is enthusiasm for them from civil society.

The case for open registers is, broadly, that it allows many eyes to look at the data. This creates greater oversight and scope for investigations from civil society – NGOs, journalists and members of the public, as well as feedback mechanisms to improve the quality of the data. There are multiplier effects when multiple open registers are merged that allow the same beneficiaries to be followed across borders. Making these datasets easier to access also makes it easier for official bodies to pursue investigations by increasing discoverability and removing obstacles to use.

A key benefit of forming companies is it provides limited liability – which protects the assets of shareholders from the legal liabilities or debts of the company beyond the size of their ownership of the company. The argument justifying releasing the personal information of owners is that this is a privacy trade-off made by individuals in exchange for the substantial benefits of limited liability.

The resulting information is a safeguard against the use of legal entities in a way that is against the public interest because it allows investigation and discovery of abuses.

Where this becomes more complicated is that the costs of that loss of privacy are not the same for everyone. Where privacy loss leads to greater risk, this may either result in harm to individuals or the fear of that harm may mean people avoid forming companies or tendering for government contracts.  As such, the collection and distribution of data needs to acknowledge different costs of disclosing information, and allow exceptions. From the Engine Room/OpenOwnership report:

Governments and companies should not collect and disclose data beyond the minimum that is necessary to achieve their aim, or data that poses a significant risk of harm. The risk associated with different types of information will depend on the context of both the individual and the country where they reside. This highlights the need for carefully designed exceptions regimes tailored to risks in that context.

A key potential risk of address information being public is stalking, and this is a risk that falls more on women than men. The UK has an open register of directors and persons of significant control (PSC), and the discussion around it reflects possible risks of open registers more broadly. The comments under a Companies House blog post about GDPR features people saying they were surprised that personal information such as signatures, month and year of birth and addresses are publicly available. One commenter explicitly said the experience of being stalked made her terrified about her address information being made available. While disclosure requirements often distinguish between company registration and home addresses, micro-businesses may be more likely to be registered from home, and so have an increased privacy cost to the owner.

In the UK, there has been an exception regime that allows information to be concealed from the public register, if personal characteristics of a person when associated with a company put a person “or any person living with them, at serious risk of violence or intimidation”.  This was amended in 2018 to remove the need for evidence for certain kinds of changes and to allow people to remove home addresses (for a cost) from register documents without the need for exceptions or evidence. Current directors have to substitute another correspondence address; former directors can have the information reduced to the first half of the postcode. This was explicitly fast-tracked without consultation as a “number of cases have been raised […] where the people involved are at risk of violence or intimidation yet cannot have their address information protected.”

A related problem involves changes of name. A requirement that directors list former names is a common sense requirement which prevents people with bad reputations avoiding scrutiny. But for transgender directors this is a public record of their transition that may either expose them to harm, or discourage company formation in the first place. This issue is one of the reasons for the exclusion of gender from the BODS standard, as a structure where old information is superseded but not removed raises this exact issue. We also heard of a similar problem when gender is encoded into ID numbers, and these ID numbers are used in public.

While there are situations where the risk is foreseeable and evidenced (a domestic violence victim starting a company at a new home, but needing to conceal their address), in other cases the damage may already be done when the risk becomes apparent. Even if information is successfully removed from the original source, where data has been released and incorporated into other products, retrospective redaction is more difficult.

This problem is analogous to one faced by political candidates in the UK, where a report about intimidation and harassment of candidates and politicians led to the removal of a requirement to have home addresses printed on the ballot paper. Increased acknowledgements of the risks posed to individuals as a more diverse set of people enter into registerable roles can require re-examination of previous standards. This is especially important if it is happening alongside the opening up of information that was previously legally (but not easily) accessible.

While privacy risks of open registers have to be accounted for in their design, closed registries might still be a privacy/security risk. One concern raised by an interviewee was that even closed registers can leak or bribery could occur for access. If a cache of data is too sensitive to publicly release, and there isn’t the capacity to properly secure it, the information may be too sensitive to gather at all. The capacity to secure and manage access to personal information is an essential component of any register.

These problems demonstrate the importance of finding methods of delivering the public benefits of having collected private identifying information, while minimising the amount of personal information that is released. We have explored possible design patterns to help accomplish this where unique identifiers are available.


See all posts in this series.