Personal Details Revealed in Search Engine Results

23rd February 2015

If you’re finding your protected trust deed “advertisement” in the search engines (when searching for your own name and location for example) this article might help you. We apologise that the article is quite long, but the subject matter is complex in parts.

When an individual signs a trust deed a “public notice” is “advertised”. The publication of these personal details is, in part, to alert potential creditors that might otherwise have been missed. It thus gives unknown creditors a chance to put forward a claim and/or influence whether a trust deed becomes protected.

These days this public notice is “advertised” in the AIB’s Register of Insolvencies. This information is available online, but prior registration is required to be able to access it. In our understanding, this means that the information contained in the Register of Insolvencies will not be indexed by search engines. You won’t find your personal details via Google for example; you’d need to access the Register website itself to get them.

Anyone that had their public notice advertised prior to 28th November 2013 fell under a different system. A notice was published in the Edinburgh Gazette. This website did not require registration to access the information contained. Though by no means very common, some of our forum members reported that their trust deed advertisement was displayed in search engine results when they “Googled” their own name.

For some people this was the cause of significant concern, not least where the presence of this information might cause severe embarrassment (or worse) at home or in the workplace.

When investigating this phenomenon it became clear that the Edinburgh Gazette had a safety-net of sorts in place to make sure this information would not be listed in the search results forever. Our forum member “Firewalker” received a response from the Edinburgh Gazette stating that they amend the coding on their webpages after four years and eleven months, which serves to instruct the search engines not to index them any longer. At this point entries should start to vanish from search engine results, though this process may still take a little time to complete.

So was this a case of “problem solved”? Most people weren’t finding their Edinburgh Gazette entry too prominently when searching their own name online, for those that were the problem would at least be time-limited to around five years, and for anyone that has signed a trust deed after November 2013 the subject is a total non-issue.

Things then took a turn for the worse.

Forum member Firewalker discovered that another website, Globe24h.com, was also publishing the advertisement of their trust deed public notice. The website appears to collect large amounts of public information (like court records for example) from countries around the world and then republishes it on their own site. One such information source that they copy is the Edinburgh Gazette.

The business model of Globe24h.com appears to be to use such data (which can inherently be very personally sensitive) to attract visitors via search engines. These visitors are then “greeted” by a significant volume of online advertising, which will earn revenues for the site’s operators.

Globe24h.com apparently has no policy of removing search engine access to Edinburgh Gazette data after four years and eleven months. They’ve no set policy to proactively remove it. Here’s what they’ve got to say about their activities so that you can judge their position for yourself:

“The public has a legitimate interest in this information — for example, information about financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials.”

The site is based in Romania. Want them to remove your entry on their website? They’ll require that you supply them with a large amount of personal information, documentation and your signature. Some people might be comfortable with doing that. Others might feel that providing this information to an overseas and apparently unregulated business exposes them to identity theft. The site itself says that this process is required to comply with Romanian data protection law.

Firewalker was understandably uncomfortable with providing this information, but for very legitimate personal reasons did not want their personal information to appear in search engine results when someone wrote their name and town into Google.

This situation happened to be developing while a change in European law was coming into effect. Google and other search engines could now, in some circumstances, be ordered to remove information from their search results where it breached certain conditions under the EU Data Protection Directive (otherwise known as the “right to be forgotten”). In fact, for our forum member Big_al, Google seems to have done that willingly.

Firewalker approached Google on three separate occasions arguing that the Globe24h.com entry should be removed from their search results. Each time Google refused. With no progress apparently likely, Firewalker turned instead to the UK’s data protection authority; the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

After several months delay, the ICO very recently replied that:

“We have considered the factors which are relevant to your removal request and we have decided it is unlikely that the search results comply with the DPA (data protection act). This is because the information is being made available through a search result for longer than necessary.”

They added:

“The website from which the information is currently available following a search on your name ‘gazette.uk.globe24h.com’ is based in Romania and is not an official government website. The official website for the information is ‘thegazette.co.uk’. You have also expressed concerns about the potential for identity theft should you provide the further information required by ‘gazette.uk.globe24h.com’ to facilitate the removal of the information from the website itself.
We will write to Google to explain the view we have reached in your case, and it is our expectation that it will remove the results.”

Firewalker reported on the forum that, within days, the Google search result that they were concerned about had vanished from the search engines. Firewalker had also received the following message from Google, which does not specifically refer to any intervention from the Information Commissioner, but which is apparently clearly timed to coincide with it:

“Thanks for reaching out to us. After further review of your request, Google Inc. is working to block the following URL(s) from European versions of Google's search results for queries related to your name. Please note that it may take several hours for this action to take effect.”  

So what should you do if you find your trust deed advertisement hosted on a website other than the Edinburgh Gazette and appearing prominently in search engine results? We’d suggest:

  1. Be very thoughtful about handing over significant amounts of personal information to websites or companies unless you are absolutely reassured that you can trust them.

  2. Contact Google (and any other relevant search engine) to make a removal request. Now there’s a documented precedent for this (thanks to Firewalker) they might just be a bit more co-operative and receptive next time around. We suggest that you focus on the issue that the information is being “published for longer than is necessary”.

  3. Contact the Information Commissioner if you’re not getting anywhere with the search engine(s). The key argument to use seems to be that the information is being “published for longer than necessary” (as mentioned above in Point 2). If your trust deed was advertised more than four years and eleven months ago, this argument appears likely to win the day under the UK interpretation of the new EU law.

Our appreciation is extended to Firewalker who has gone to some considerable effort to assist us by providing the background source information used to write this article. 

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