Joyzabel's post on a recent thread, and my response to it, prompted an idea which I thought merited a new topic regarding the Congregation's Publisher Record Card and someone who's trying to do the 'fade.' However, before you read a long post, I must emphasise I have no professional expertise in this area, it is simply an idea that came to me, and I would appreciate any constructive criticism. First though, a little background...
The Data Protection Act 1998
The UK has had a Data Protection Act ('DPA') since 1984, however it only applied to information processed by computer, As a result, many organisations transferred 'sensitive' information to paper (e.g. details of people's sexual and political inclinations). This Act did not substantially affect the WT.
From memory, this paper-based data loophole became particularly apparent when UK newspapers revealed an organisation had been set up by large UK employers to maintain a--paper-based, of course!--blacklist of militant trade unionists, whom they would never employ.
So when the Labour government (historically financed and controlled by the trade unions) came to power in 1997, one of their first priorities was to block this loophole. The result was the 1998 DPA (to be fair to Labour, it was also partly based on a 1995 European directive) and was introduced with the explicit aim of protecting a person's right to privacy (a glaring omission from the 1984 Act) and ensuring that a person (a 'data subject' in the jargon of the Act!) has access to information held about him or her and can correct it if it is inaccurate. The Act also protects against excessive information being retained about a person and against it being retained for an unreasonable amount of time. It is a criminal action to breach the Act.
The Act enshrined eight central principles. To ensure that personal information is handled properly, it has to be:
- Fairly and lawfully processed
- Processed for limited purposes
- Adequate, relevant and not excessive
- Not kept for longer than is necessary
- Processed in line with individuals' rights
- Not transferred to countries without adequate protection
Expanded information on each of the principles is available in Schedule 1 part 2 of the Act.
Organisations which process personal data have to be registered with the Information Commissioner (the Crown official charged with enforcing both the DPA and the Freedom of Information Act 2000). You can view WT's and IBSA's entry details. Most significantly for the WT, it broadened the definition of data to include paper-based records.
Amusingly, the Britain branch was totally unprepared for the introduction of the 1998 Act until someone whispered in their ear what was happening and suddenly everything went ballistic. There was a flurry of letters from the Service Department to bodies of elders, each with mildly contradictory and 'updated' instructions.
There were detailed instructions for elders to go through their personal files and destroy all old agendas and minutes of elders' meetings, their notes taken at elders' meetings and any other personal records, notes or correspondence that referred to individuals. Whole forests were destroyed while every Society form that named individuals was revised, reprinted and sent out to congregations, often two or three times as the revisions were themselves revised. Congregation records had to be gone through with a fine tooth comb and many were destroyed. Even publishers had to be instructed not to include details of a person's language, religion or ethnic background on their 'field service notebooks,' since House-to-House Record slips (S-8) had also been abolished. (It always seemed ironic, given our purpose in calling, that we were not to write down details of a person's religion...)
Regarding the Congregation's Publisher Record Card (S-21), the Society prepared a revision with a printed declaration at the bottom for each publisher to sign, giving their consent to permit the collection and retention of the information on the card. The Society instructed the elders to get all publishers to sign one of the new cards and they recognised that some (only a very few) publishers may either withhold, or some time later withdraw, their consent.
Now, what about the situation where someone wishes to leave the WT religion? The only permanent congregation records of that person are the S-21 and any judicial papers in (a) the congregation file and (b) the Service Department files.
Implications for S-21
I'll come back shortly to judicial papers, but, s o far as I know, the Society's instructions are that a publisher's S-21 cards should never be destroyed (apart, that is, from old cards: from memory, only the last eight years were to be kept) but had to be kept for when the publisher was eventually reactivated.
So the situation arises where someone many years ago may have stopped publishing and attending meetings, but their S-21 remains in the secretary's file, in the section for 'Inactive Publishers' (an oxymoron if ever I heard one!). I believe that the congregation's indefinitely retaining these cards criminally breaches three of the data principles: that (1) the personal data is held with the subject's consent, (2) the personal data is not held for longer than is necessary and (3) that retaining the personal information does not breach the subject's rights of privacy.
I'll consider these in slightly more detail:
(1) It seems reasonable that probably most people on leaving the religion would almost automatically withdraw their consent for their personal information to be held by the congregation. (Although consent is not one of the eight principles, it is implicit in principle 1, that personal data is 'fairly and lawfully processed, subject to certain conditions being met.')
(2) One of the weaknesses of the current Act is that no guidance is offered as to how long is "necessary." Indeed, many organisations dispose of information early to ensure compliance with this principle. (This was one of the excuses used by the police in the recent case of the murder of two little girls in Soham by Ian Huntly: the police said they felt they were required to delete suspicions of Huntly's earlier activites.) Of course, WT goes the other way, and by requiring congregations to indefinitely retain personal data is certainly in breach of the law.
(3) WT might respond by suggesting, that if someone wants to leave, and have the congregation remove all personal data concerning them, that person is effectively disassociating him (or her) self, and so that would be announced to the congregation, with all the implications that involves. But by doing this, they would be in breach of principle 6, which protect the data subjects' rights to privacy and would enable them to claim compensation for "substantial damage or distress" caused to them by improper use of their personal data.
Implications for judicial files
I suggested earlier that judicial papers were in (a) the congregation file and (b) the Service Department files. So far as the DPA is concerned, my understanding is that, so far as the law is concerned, there is not the slightest difference between S-21s and any judicial files the congregation may hold. By holding on to them, I believe the congregation secretary (the 'data controller' in the jargon of the Act) is committing a criminal offence.
What about the Society's position? The Service Department policy is not to destroy any judicial records, even when the subject dies. But if a person is disfellowshipped or disassociated, they are obviously not part of the religion, and the Service Department (or whoever is the nominated 'data controller') therefore commits the same criminal offences.
On the other hand, I have not the slightest doubt that the Britain branch will have taken legal advice and I can only presume that they feel comfortable retaining the records that they do, albeit that their procedures have never (yet) been tested in court. However, knowing the way the Society thinks, there may be another explanation. The DPA is often vaguely and clumsily worded, and the Information Commissioner is vary cautious in exercise of his powers. From memory, so far not a single person has gone to jail for breaching the DPA. It may be that WT is taking a calculated risk, knowing they are breaking the law but reasonably confident they can get away with it.
In any case, before instituting criminal action, the Information Commissioner's practice is consult with the alleged offender to try to first persuade him to mend his ways, and only institute proceedings if this fails. Thus, no doubt WT feels very safe that they can breach the law with impunity, as they will get plenty of warning, plus time to correct matters, if a complaint is made and they should get found out.
It is my opinion that the Society is knowingly breaking the DPA and, possibly unwittingly, allowing congregations to also break the law. I also feel, based on my limited understanding of the Act, that WT is vulnerable in a number of other areas, and once an aggressive lawyer got stuck into them, a number of other breaches would be uncovered. However, I'm not a lawyer and all this is merely my speculation.
Is there anyone here who can comment more authoritatively on whether these musings have any basis whatsoever in reality?