By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Information held on the identity card database will not be sold to private companies, say ministers. Why are our personal details worth anything at all?
In a world where increasingly bizarre items are auctioned and sold, it seems anything has a value.
A name and address is no exception. Businesses can make broad assumptions about consumers based on where they live and market their goods accordingly.
The identity card register has this information and more, including age, previous addresses, signature, national insurance number and fingerprints. But the government has strongly rejected reports there would be a £750 charge for access, to cover increasing costs.
Yet the commercial appetite for this kind of information demonstrates how personal details have become a commodity like any other. And there is a mountain of such information out there, from what kind of yoghurt you buy to where you fill your car with petrol, leaving an electronic trail behind you.
HOW TO REGAIN PRIVACY
Opt out of postal marketing - read the small print and tick the right boxes
Take yourself off the edited electoral roll
Stop cold calls and junk mail with telephone and mail preference services (see Internet links)
Use Data Protection Act to find out what info is held on you
Check your credit report at Equifax, Experian or Call Credit
A list as comprehensive as the national identity register would be useful for checking marketing lists, says Caroline Roberts of the Direct Marketing Association, which has 900 member organisations.
"It would be unsophisticated to just trawl through but it would be a comprehensive way of making sure your lists were accurate," she says.
Names and addresses are of limited value these days, says Jill Stevens, consumer affairs director at data marketing firm Experian. It has detailed lifestyle information volunteered by 13.5 million people in postal or online surveys which ask questions about areas like reading, music, income and insurance.
Combining this with public data like the Census and economic analysis, it can tell whether people living in a certain postcode are more likely to buy a BMW or a Ford Focus.
"For reputable companies we deal with, like financial services and retailers, they would be looking to fine-tune their marketing so they don't waste money or irritate people by sending them offers they're not interested in," she says.
Experian also has detailed credit information, but this cannot be used for marketing.
Supermarket loyalty schemes keep a record of shopping habits, right down to how many toilet rolls a household buys. Although the largest reward programme, Nectar, says it does not record what items people buy, others regard holiday giveaways and discounts as a good price to pay for brand loyalty and information on spending habits.
Lifestyle information is sometimes volunteered through postal competition entries. And online retail sites are cookie-enabled to track what products an individual likes to browse.
Ms Roberts says this is usually in the interests of consumers. "If used intelligently and people understand what their rights and protections are, it's to their advantage," she says. "If I'm buying on Amazon, they say I might be interested in this or that, which is great because I don't want to hear about caravan holidays or nappies."
Proper legal safeguards exist in the Data Protection Act, she adds, which restrict how much companies can target consumers unsolicited.
Not everyone is convinced. The National Consumer Council has raised concerns that every time we surf the net or use a credit card, store card or mobile phone, we give away information about ourselves.
Chief executive Ed Mayo says: "New plans for road pricing using satellite tracking are just the latest example of the rapid advance of the information economy. We are living in a surveillance society but our data protection laws aren't up to the job."
What's in that trolley?
Civil liberties groups fear that however secure the identity card register may be now, that could change.
"The identity card database is a goldmine for financial services and commercial companies in general," says Doug Jewell of Liberty. " And the temptation for a future government to sell that information would be overwhelming."
And whatever the value to the legitimate world of business, opponents say that information held on the database could have even more value in the hands of identity thieves.
But is the information economy really a threat?
David Aaronovitch, writing in the Times, says: "I don't care if the folks in Old Tesco House are joking about my purchase of a family-sized tub of Vaseline, or if I am entered on a national DNA database which could help to track down rapists. I am not a shoplifter or a rapist.
"I am no more likely to be wrongly suspected of being one because of this technology and surveillance. Rather less, actually."
A selection of your comments appears below. The debate is now closed:
As an ex Pat I have to have an ID card and have no real problems with it. However my biggest concern with UK data is that, in an effort to save money, Bank Details and other sensitive information has been outsourced to India. Does this then remove all our rights under the UK Data Protection Act in the event of disclosure of this information ? Also is it not illegal to place our Confidential Information out of the UK without our permission ?
The 'nothing to hide' camp are missing the point. I don't consider myself as a criminal or a threat to the state but I profoundly just do not want to be spied upon. Why is it the case that it logically follows that we have something to hide? The truth is that no one has any real idea of how such a database will be used once established - there's bound to be 'function creep'. But there you go, call me paranoid as well as having somthing to hide! And yes, I work in IT.
John I, UK
Whenever I am asked to enter my details, I register my own name and details, with a fictitious title. I am working my way through the ecumenical titles, starting at "Reverend" and working my way up. I know that anything addressed to "Archdeacon Sarah..." can be safely ignored. After that I'll start on the aristocracy...
"Canon" Sarah, Reading, UK
We have at least two schemes to avoid junk promoters. Our telephone has been listed under our 20-year-old cat's name. We obviously know mail or calls directed to him aren't something we'd be interested in. He hasn't told us how he feels about this. The other scheme just happened all by itself. A credit card company once badly misspelled my husband's name. We never corrected their error. We no longer have the credit card account so any mail addressed to Mr. Badly-Misspelled Foster is tossed immediately. I suppose one could do that deliberately to avoid unsolicited correspondence.
Rita Foster, US
I have read this bill in detail, and it makes provision for any identifying physical characteristic to be registered in the database. What if they put everyone's DNA on file? They could sell your DNA data to insurance companies, who could then increase your insurance premiums because of your genetic predispositions, or even refuse to give you health / life insurance?
Franchesca Mullin, Belfast, Northern Ireland
I think this does not go far enough. I would like to see DNA information collected as part of the ID card issuing process. If the database held DNA information for every citizen, crime solving rates would be dramatically improved. Food for thought. I honestly feel that there is no harm in this idea unless you have something to hide. I have already been a victim of identity theft and now believe that the more information held about the real me, the better.
Steve Hazelton, UK
I used to look at all of my receipts but then it felt like Animal Farm or something. I mean, who really wants to know how much they spend on things like food? - not me, but I don't want Mr Joe Bloggs to know about my donut addiction, who would? As far as I'm concerned the internet is rubbish and identity cards aren't exactly an improvement - and you can quote me on that next election when my vote will start talking.
Mark Harris, London, United Kingdom
As your article has raised already, there are plenty of sources of information avaiable to marketers without a National ID database. Every time you use a store's loyalty card they collect information on you! As long as you don't engage in illegal activities you have nothing to fear from ID cards. Hopefully it will go some way to stopping the huge problem of identity theft in this country.
I note that the ID card will detail date of death. Is this information entered pre-emptively to denote the end of our usefulness to society, Logans Run style?
Stuart, MK, UK
It's a fact of life that lots of organisations gather information about us all the time and it's a matter of when, not if, a national ID card scheme comes into force, and we have to live with that.
What I can't quite understand about the info that is going to be stored on the card, is why we have to have so many different numbers - NI number, passport number, NHS number, driving licence number etc. etc. Surely as we all have an individual number once we start work - the NI number, this could be given at birth instead and used on all forms of identification - we then have only one number?
Neil Clowes, UK
The problem with the Identity Register is that once your personal details have been (compulsorily) collected, you have no further say in their use. Control of the data would be out of individuals' hands and in that of the state. Regardless of what any government may say about controls on the system, this is fundamentally wrong. Obviously we give a fair amount of information to third parties already, but this is voluntary. The element of compulsion fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between (our servant) the state, and the individual.
Daniel Allen, UK
Someone in the UK needs to undertake a massive campaign to encourage all of the UK's population to make household policies NOT to respond to any marketing attempts by phone, mail or e-mail. Make the process non-profitable! For example, every time you receive a CREDIT CARD APPLICATION INVITATION, make certain you send back the empty return envelope because this costs the company the postage!!!
Win the war!
Brett Jackson, USA
I am only interested in an ID card if it contains/replaced the passport, driving license, bank cards etc - i.e. less junk rather than more. As to privacy - it's got no data that is not already stored elsewhere!
Duncan , UK
I say YES to ID cards provided my ID number is private and for government use only (I am in the nothing to hide camp). But once my unique number is associated with all my everyday transactions, then the marketing men and commercial world will be the ones who really control me. That I do not want. Only my name (& address if required) and card (to prove bio-metrically) that I am that name and I am a British citizen is all I would wish to disclose commercially. If my unique identity is to become part of the ultimate marketing tool, then NO to ID cards
Mike, Plymouth, UK
Why not just make us have mandatory Bar Code Tattoos so we can be tracked like cattle? Shouldn't a birth certificate be enough proof of who we are, rather than make everyone pay £40 for the government's and marketing companies' privilege? The thought of a future government selling off our details is frightening. We relish our privacy and have the right to have it remain.
My BSc dissertation was a project on the 'Public Perception of the Surveillance Society' - focusing on how public feel about the data captured by supeormarkets and in particular via loyalty cards.
The stark, and to me slightly worrying, results were that individuals generally don't care that much about their personal data being distributed as they mostly consider themselves good citizens with nothing to fear. In general I've always felt very similarly but the opportunites for exploitaion of personal data by certain government or corporate agendas are incredibly worrying.
mark gaffney, London, UK
Receiving junk mail is the least of our worries. This article did nothing to instigate a reaction from me until I read what the civil liberties group had to say. These people are the modern day Wolfie Smiths but without the comedy. Why they have to go against any strides this country tries to make to deal with asylum seekers is beyond me. The sooner we get rid of the human rights bill the better our country will become.
Lee W., England
David Aaronovitch is, however, a journalist. An identity database would definitely make it easier to track and control critical journalists should a government decide such a course of action is necessary for "national security"
Many concerns about data protection are unwarranted. The most sensitive types of data, such as medical data for example are already collected and safely protected from misuse. If advertising companies want to trawl though reems of purchasing data to see if I'd want their latest brand of toothpaste, then let them. I'd rather have targetted advertising rather than get the deluge of offers of car insurance for the car I don't even own.
Alison, Leeds, UK