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Tony Allen

Security Matters - Who owns your identity?

Wed 4 Nov 2009

By Tony Allen

I believe this is a question we’re all going to be asking ourselves in the years ahead,
along with forming our own views on just who should have access to all our personal details. I’m of the view that these should be given to as few persons or organisations as possible, as I believe it’s all about freedom of the individual and restriction of bureaucratic involvement in our lives. 

So just who has your personal details?

I expect many more organisations have them than you think. Just think about it: who has gathered loads of facts and figures about you and your lifestyle? Most of them are
bodies that you yourself have given important personal information to. Let’s have a look at some that already know a great deal about you.

In the public sector

There’s HM Revenue & Customs, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre, the Office of the Identity and Passport Services (note the new name, which says a lot about how central government is going to be thinking about using your identity in the future!), the National Health Service, Social Services, and local authorities. 

You can trust this reliable lot to keep your details private, can’t you? Or can you? In October 2007 a CD from HMRC containing information on 25 million people was “lost in the post” while supposedly on its way to the National Audit Office. The newspapers have carried many similar disconcerting stories since! 

In the private sector

There’s your bank and whomever you hold credit cards with, including stores and loyalty cards. When you buy on the internet, your details are passed to an agent acting for the retailer. The retailer may share information about you and your lifestyle to others (e.g. airlines to car hire companies and hotels, stores and charities to similar organisations) all for a fee no doubt! Your details are passed to credit checking agencies, so you could even find yourself having financial transaction difficulties without knowing why.

They wouldn’t misuse this info, would they?

Well, recently, there has been publicity about a call centre in India selling personal financial details about people, including card numbers and security codes. Our privacy and data protection laws don’t seem to stretch beyond the UK and the EU. Whoever thought that one up, giving very sensitive and confidential data about you to these far away places? 

Keeping control

So, do you know who’s got your details and can you control how they are used? Like most of us, I suspect not. But I expect you’ve heard of the Data Protection Act, which aims to give us safeguards over the use of our personal details. On the other hand, the Freedom of Information Act, which was brought in through EU legislation, has enabled us to find out how our parliamentary representatives have been spending our taxes, sometimes not in a way we expected or find acceptable. It has taken control away from the MPs and their Lordships in a way they never imagined. So is there a balance in there somewhere? You might sit on both sides of the fence on that one!

ID Cards

This is a big issue. The Government has wanted to introduce these across the board, but the credit crunch (rather than any feelings about civil liberties) has put this on the back burner.

According to research sources readily available on the internet, there are already 46 government databases, a quarter of which contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, half of which are unreliable, many breaking privacy rules (e.g. holding DNA details of non-criminals and tens of thousands of infants).  While there is an Information Commissioner who is supposed to deal with breaches of personal information disclosure laws, and the holding of inaccurate, intrusive or unauthorised personal details, things are far from satisfactory on guarding your personal data. What would ID cards do to help out here? Any suggestions on a postcard with a stamped addressed envelope please (only joking!). 

...do we need them?

My view is that it is acceptable for certain bodies to hold our details. Our National Insurance numbers are used by certain government departments for their own specific areas of responsibility, and financial companies use them to check who we are to cope with money laundering and opening new accounts, etc. Our passport and driving licence are also good ways of checking identity. These are good examples of where existing ID-type cards work.

However, a fully electronic smart ID card which may include biometric information about you, which would allow all public bodies to access your details, in my view is too much. I also believe it increases opportunities for fraud and identity theft, when you definitely would lose control of your affairs, and possibly your assets too. 

Civil rights

These have been hard fought for and established over centuries. Protecting our own identities is our right, and is a key to our own personal security and enjoyment of life in a way that suits each of us. I trust you agree.



Other columns by Tony Allen

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