New Zealand watchdog warns against posting signatures online

AUCKLAND – The Privacy Commissioner says the posting of signatures in online registers is a matter of concern, after an Auckland-based IT contractor found his published and available to anyone at the Charities Commission website.

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff says signatures posted online present some concerns. She encourages agencies to obscure, suppress or pixelate them wherever possible.

“There are risks of identity fraud or other security-related issues if a signature and supporting information is publicly available and can then be copied,” she says. “In the case of scanned documents that are added to websites, it would seem a straightforward measure to obscure the signature before the document is scanned.”

A member and charity officer of a school trust board, IT contractor Berend de Boer, discovered his signature was on the site from the school’s secretary.

“I’ve never been the victim of identify fraud, but of what I’ve read, it must be horrible,” de Boer says. “So I’m actually slightly scared as a signature is the only piece of information that is hard to find… Previously, only close associates would have the ability to copy it, now anyone can. What if this is used to destroy my credit rating?”

The Charities Commission says displaying signatures on application forms posted to its website adds credibility to the authenticity of the charity and its officers. The public relies on the signature as endorsing the application’s validity and that the officer is qualified, says the commission’s spokeswoman Sandra Bennett.

“We note on each of the forms, in our information sheets and on our website that all the information we collect is published on the Register, unless we receive a request to withhold any particular information — this could, for example, include a request to withhold the name, or signature, or an officer,” says Bennett.

However, de Boer says he called the Charities Commission and asked to have his signature removed. “But they responded that they wouldn’t do this,” he says. “I could write a letter, but they would ignore that.”

De Boer says fraud has become easy. Fraudsters could, potentially, steal a checkbook and then, from the comfort of their own home, get signatures from a website, he says. “That wasn’t possible before,” he says.

Concern about fraud has been raised with the Charities Commission by several individuals, says Bennett.

“We suggest that people who may have any concerns… write to ask us to withhold their signature from the public register,” she says.

Signatures are also available online on other public registers, such as the Companies Office. Ministry of Economic Development communications advisor Mei Taare says the Companies Act requires copies of documents, some of which contain the names and residential addresses of directors and shareholders, to be available in their entirety, including signed consents.

The Privacy Act permits the disclosure of personal information on a public register and the Companies Office complies with these principles, says the MED.

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