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Never mind ID cards, your finances are already giving away your secrets

 

By Helen Monks

 

The British government’s plan to introduce identity cards has raised concern over what many see as an erosion of our civil liberties. The cards might ultimately hold information on everything from medical details, benefits entitlement and criminal records, to biometric data such as fingerprints and iris scans – all of which could be accessed by the police and other authorities.

 

Big Brother society?

When defending the case for ID cards, the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said the proposed cards would be no more intrusive than loyalty-card schemes such as supermarket reward cards. And while Blunkett was taken to task over his comments by the £2 billion marketing-information industry, there is a body of opinion that contends that Britain has already become a surveillance society.

 

Research by the National Consumer Council (NCC) says growing use of personal data for commercial purposes is undermining individual privacy. Companies ranging from loyalty-card providers to marketing agencies are already compiling details about where we shop and what our hobbies are. Any information we provide willingly can be used to target us with products or services, and some lists may be sold on to other organisations.

 

The NCC warns that the trade in personal data might lead to certain social groups receiving inferior products and a poorer service, and argues that errors in handling an individual’s data could also potentially cause harm to their job prospects, access to financial products or financial status. Even correct information could be harmful if it leads to relentless unwanted sales calls and junk mail – which may leave you more open to identity fraud. We have become “glass consumers”, according to the NCC, because it’s so easy for companies to obtain information about us.

 

  

 

What price loyalty?

Supermarket loyalty schemes, marketing lists, surveys and the use of debit and credit cards, all generate records on how and where we spend our money. Take reward cards, for example. With 50% of all UK households participating in the largest loyalty scheme, Nectar, it’s tempting to question the power of these schemes. However, the loyalty-scheme industry has hit back at criticism by explaining that a user’s provision of data when they take out these cards is entirely voluntary – unlike with ID cards.

 

The information gathered by companies is stored on a database, but is not sold on, or shared with companies outside the scheme. This all sounds fairly unthreatening, but Nectar is just one of an estimated 160 loyalty schemes in the UK, and not all will show the same level of care.

 

The Data Protection Act 1998 deals with any personal information that is collected or stored on paper and electronically, and aims to ensure information kept about you is accurate, up-to-date, secure, relevant, and not held on to for too long. See below for a guide to your rights.

 

Transparent lives

Technology is also making inroads into our privacy. For example, many

websites use ‘cookies’ to transfer information to your computer’s hard disk, so websites can remember who you are and personalise content to match your preferred interests more quickly. Then there are Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, which show your exact position on earth anytime, and Bluetooth technology, which allows your computer, monitor, mouse, mobile phone, keyboard or anything with a Bluetooth chip, to communicate by radio instead of cables – all of which is making our lives even more transparent.

 

It’s easy to get paranoid about all this. But it’s also simple enough to gain greater control over the information held on you. For a few pounds, credit reference agencies will check that details held on you are correct.

 

You can also register your details with the Direct Marketing Association’s free Mailing Preference Service, thus removing your name from up to 95% of direct mail lists in the UK, helping reduce both junk mail and your vulnerability to ID fraud. Removing your details from the section of the Electoral Roll sold to companies for commercial purposes will also help reduce the amount of junk landing on your doorstep.

 

Check your file

Check that any websites collecting personal information provide a ‘Use of Data’ notice, which should describe all the purposes for which the information collected will be used. You should also look at ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ (FAQ) sections to check to see that any personal information you give them will be protected by encryption. If you’re not happy with the way the site uses your information, steer clear of it.

 

Once you have done this, if you find your privacy being invaded, you can write to the firm in question and use the Data Protection Act to find out what information is held on you and have it corrected or deleted. You may be charged up to £10 for each register entry for supplying this information, but in some cases it is supplied free.

 

Taking these steps should mean that – even in this Big Brother society – it is possible to keep some things to yourself. However, if ID cards become a reality as proposed, there will be a whole new challenge to face in keeping your details private.                              

 

 

The Data Protection Act – a quick guide to your rights

 

You have the right to see all information concerning you that is stored on paper or on a computer by public or private organisations

 

Companies must provide a specific reason for keeping personal data on record – otherwise this data must be deleted

 

You have the right to request any information stored about you

 

All organisations have to provide any information they may hold on you within 40 days, or you can report them to the Information Commissioner

 

You have the right to ask a company to stop sending marketing information to you by email or by post

 

Websites that store personal data must also provide an ‘update details’ feature, so that any incorrect details can be changed

 

Useful contacts

 

Credit reference agencies

 

Experian: Credit Expert

Equifax

 

Other

The Information Commissioner:

informationcommissioner.gov.uk

01625 545 745

 

The National Consumer Council:

ncc.org.uk 020 7730 3469

 

Direct Marketing Association:

mpsonline.org.uk

0845 703 4599

 

Telephone Preference Service:

tpsonline.org.uk

0845 070 0707

 

With thanks to Interactive Investors where this piece first appeared.

 

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