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Friday, 10 December, 1999, 11:15 GMT
You've got mailing lists

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

In a world where information is the new currency, he with the biggest database rules.

And that is proving a worry to many of us according to the National Consumer Council, which has launched a campaign to tighten up on the distribution of personal details.

Even the most seemingly innocuous sliver of information - home address, date of birth, marital status - is potential gold in the eyes of the information prospectors.

The Data Protection Registrar says there are more than 200,000 computerised databases in the UK. On average, each of us appears on about 200 of them.

They feed off the sorts of details we sometimes unwittingly provide.

Almost everything that you do these days you leave a trail of information
Marlene Winfield
Insurance firms, banks, video stores, mail order companies, internet traders, local councils - all of them can make a handsome sum selling personal information about us.

It is a boom business and one that has come of age thanks to the availability of inexpensive powerful computers which can crunch this information into a meaningful form.

What do points mean

Supermarket loyalty cards are a prime example. Thanks to bar code scanners every purchase is logged so a profile can be put together of each customer.

In the words of a Sainsbury's spokesman it helps the company to "understand our customers better and be able to serve them better".

Safeway's ABC card - all major supermarkets have their own loyalty cards
"Almost everything that you do these days you leave a trail of information," says Marlene Winfield head of policy strategy at the NCC.

Rules governing the distribution of information, in both written and electronic form, come under the Data Protection Act.

The act prevents details about an individual from being distributed beyond what is considered a foreseeable use unless they agree otherwise.

Crucially however, in each instance we have to opt out if we don't want our details going further afield. Often the means for doing so is the little box at the end of an application form that asks you to tick if you DO NOT want your details sold on.

The NCC wants the onus to change so people will have to consciously opt in if they want the details sold on.

Valuable information

Generally supermarkets do not sell on their high-grade information although there would be no shortage of takers if they did. The Act also prevents them from passing on information within the company, say from a supermarket's retail arm to its banking arm, if the customer asks to opt out.

It's a different story for local councils, which are obliged to make available the information they have acquired through the electoral register. Westminster Council in London sells details of voters for 2.50 per thousand names in written form or 18 if you want it on a disk.

Data Protection Registrar designed to avoid abuse
Why is this information so sought after? Increasingly it is the lifeblood of the direct mail industry, which can pinpoint an audience using lifestyle information.

Companies are moving from broadbrush advertising to a more targeted approach. Their aim is to get the highest possible return on advertising outlay.

According to the Direct Mail Information Service, direct mail volume is growing, and now averages more than four billion items a year in the UK.

In the words of Nicola MacRobbie, of list brokers Dudley Jenkins: "There's no point in trying to sell a new BMW to someone who only earns 10,000 a year."

The job of a list broker is to act as a go-between, matching companies with direct mailing lists for the sort of customers they want to sell to.

Charities to cattle insemination

Dudley Jenkins deals in domestic and commercial markets and the requests made of it are wide-ranging.

"Credit card companies, charities, business cards - they come to us looking for lists of people to market to. Even artificial insemination of cattle - that customer wanted to target farmers," says Ms MacRobbie.

And the price? It depends on the quality of information on offer.

Basic domestic information can be anything from 75 to 110 per thousand names. For business names, it's more like 110 to 160. But for more specialised stuff, for example details of the month in which people renew their insurance, a thousand names could fetch 230.

So next time you divulge a wealth of personal information about yourself, it's worth asking "what's in it for me?"

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