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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Britain: a 'surveillance society'
Supermarket checkouts
Many people don't know how their personal data is used
Britain has become a 'surveillance society' in which people have little control over how their personal data is used by companies, a new book argues.

The Glass Consumer says growing use of personal data for commercial purposes is undermining individual privacy.

Its publisher, the National Consumer Council, says people provide data via credit cards, mobile phones and CCTV cameras often without realising it.

Public concern over the issue is rising, the consumer body stressed.

Tracking spending

Publishing a series of essays on the issue, the Council said peoples' movements and consumer behaviour were now constantly tracked.

We are living in a surveillance society but our data protection laws are not up to the job
Ed Mayo, National Consumer Council

Companies kept tabs on individuals' spending habits through loyalty card schemes and by analysing which websites they visited.

More sophisticated methods, such as the use of global positioning systems (GPS) to trace mobile phone calls and the use of genetic information to determine financial policies could become more widely used in the future, it warned.

Fears about the erosion of individual rights have inevitably heightened since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the book argues, with the fear of terrorism tending to trump concerns over privacy.

"We are living in a surveillance society but our data protection laws aren't up to the job," said Ed Mayo, the National Consumer Council's chief executive.

Financial exclusion

The Glass Consumer acknowledges that the rise of a "personal information economy" has brought huge benefits to British society.

Technological advances, which have made data easier to collect, have helped governments make more informed policy decisions.

Sophisticated information gathering has also enabled companies to customise goods and services, helping them to channel investment more efficiently, tackle fraud and improve competitiveness.

However, the book warns that the 'trade' in personal data poses significant threats, not only to individual privacy but to social cohesion.

Certain social groups could receive inferior products and a poorer service as a result of information held about them, the book warns, potentially reinforcing existing economic inequalities.

"Increasing sophistication in data manipulation means that lenders can segment their market and this may result in some consumers being excluded or only offered services on unfavourable terms," said Harriet Hall, a member of the Financial Services Consumer Panel and one of the book's authors.

Errors in handling personal information could also potentially cause harm to an individual's job prospects or financial status.

Fraud threat

The Consumer Council believes the Information Commissioner should be given new legal powers to audit how companies use customer information.

We have some of the strictest privacy laws in this country
Caroline Roberts, Direct Marketing Association

"Research consistently shows that many companies fail to comply with data protection legislation - often unaware of their legal responsibilities," Mr Mayo added.

Marketing bodies stressed that regulation protecting consumers in the area of data protection was robust.

Consumers have the right to see what information is being held on them, correct any errors and prevent that data from being used for marketing purposes, the Direct Marketing Association said.

"There are important safeguards in place and the biggest consumer protection is the law. We have some of the strictest privacy laws in this country," said Caroline Roberts, the Association's director of public and legal affairs.

The Council added that people could take simple steps to protect themselves by ensuring that any data held by credit rating agencies and other bodies was accurate.

Other steps people could take include:

  • Register with the free Telephone and Mailing Preference Services. These services will block unwanted 'cold calls' from companies and curtail about 95% of unwanted mail.
  • Be careful about what information you give. Check the small print on forms if you want to opt out of mail shots.
  • Opt out of part of the Electoral Roll. You can remove your details from the section of the Electoral Roll sold to companies for commercial purposes
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