Are digital advancements costing us our privacy and our identities?

Mobile phones and credit cards may create more freedom and greater mobility, but improvements in data-capturing technology threaten the privacy of consumers using such devices

We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about the invasion of privacy by the media. Last week’s Channel 4 documentary about a woman with multiple personality disorder was screened only after a High Court battle. The Official Solicitor had argued that it breached her privacy under the Human Rights Act.

The Beckhams recently failed to secure an injunction stopping the News of the World printing allegations by a former nanny. After the horse had bolted, they won undertakings from her not to reveal more. And the saga of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ wedding photos came back to the Law Courts, where she and Michael Douglas gave evidence two years ago amid a media circus. Three Appeal Court judges overturned an earlier ruling that Hello! magazine should pay OK! more than &£1m in damages.

With the courts still testing the laws designed to protect us from media intrusion, this aspect of privacy is still high profile. What we hear far less about is the invasion of privacy by marketing companies and government agencies.

A new book from the National Consumer Council (NCC) says the threat comes from the explosion in new data- capturing technology, designed – in the case of marketing companies – to track customers’ needs and purchases and – in the case of the Government – to implement new policies, such as tighter security and road pricing.

The NCC is calling for tougher and better policed information laws. It argues that every time we surf the Net or use a credit card or mobile phone, we give away far more information about ourselves than we realise.

“It is your birthday and your post has just landed on the mat”, writes Dr Susanne Lace in the introduction to the book, called The Glass Consumer – Life in a Surveillance Society. “Among the offers for loans and charity appeals (where did they get your name from?) you see that Sainsbury’s has sent you a personalised birthday card, offering a free box of chocolates.

“Your car insurer also extends an invitation to take part in a trial where your premiums will vary depending on the journeys you make. They will track your movements by satellite. Later, you dine in a local restaurant. Looking up, you notice a CCTV camera. When did they install that?”

The NCC says it’s often easier for consumers to identify the benefits of the use of personal information than the harm. The use of mobile phones instead of landlines, and credit cards instead of cash, gives people much greater mobility and freedom. Used properly, the technology can find you the nearest Chinese restaurant in an unfamiliar area; let you book tickets for gigs and films or pay automatically for your Tube travel; and take advantage of special offers, personally targeted to your likes and needs. Internet shopping has transformed the drudgery of the weekly supermarket trawl.

But the NCC adds that all of this centralised information can also be inaccurate or badly handled, and this can cause people significant harm. In 2003, the UK Criminal Records Bureau wrongly identified at least 193 job applicants as having criminal records. In June 2004, according to the US Public Interest Research Group, one in four credit reports in the US contained errors serious enough to deny consumers credit.

And though the 1998 Data Protection Act should ensure that data is used only in accordance with strict principles of fair information, the law can be poorly understood or blamed for other organisational failures. The NCC says misinterpretations of the DPA and other poor practice have been implicated in several deaths, from the murder of two girls in Soham to the deaths of two pensioners whose energy supply was disconnected in the middle of winter.

Then there’s criminal activity. Identity theft is one of the UK’s fastest-growing crimes – up seven-fold in five years. People can find themselves the victims of fraud and involved in a nightmare battle to clear their names. And credit-card fraud is now a giant industry – so much so that card companies have begun rejecting perfectly legitimate transactions by law-abiding customers, simply because they are not familiar or regular purchases.

I recently tried to use a credit card to pay a large printing bill. It was rejected, without any chance to discuss the matter – even though I’d used the same card with the same company a year ago. When I rang the credit-card companies to query it, I was automatically put through to the fraud department, who asked me to confirm my most recent purchases. A friend had the same experience trying to buy a consignment of wine.

While it is comforting that such checks are taking place, if they stop us making unfamiliar purchases on our credit cards, we may soon have to go round carrying large wads of cash.v

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