Govt accepts delete-by deadline. Do you?

The Home Office has announced that it will delete the DNA records of people who have not been charged with any offence after six years. That is a triumph for civil liberties and goes to show that even in the sensitive world of policing and national security, privacy rights can not be over-ridden.

It also reinforces the importance of the Fifth Principle of the Data Protection Act, that data “shall not be kept for longer than is necessary” for the purpose for which it was collected. There are plenty of people who believe that someone who comes into contact with the police and has their DNA sample taken must in some way be suspect and should therefore remain forever on the database.

The European Court of Human Rights disagrees and told the UK last December that unlimited retention of DNA was unlawful. So the Home Office had to respond and has chosen a shorter delete-by date than had been expected.

If the most personal data of all is to be subject to a deletion cycle in this way, then surely it is time that all forms of personal information are dealt with in the same way. Yet it is still rare to find an organisation that has a formal policy of removing records from dormant customers even years after they have last transacted.

Why do marketers believe themselve to be operating under a different set of obligations to the Government? Perhaps it is that the idea of individuals as consumers has become so entrenched that a person is assumed to be in the market for goods and services permanently. That provides a conceptual argument for keeping records indefinitely.

As a result, databases grow ever broader to encompass all those who have ever touched the organisation, whether they have converted into a customer or not and regardless of how long ago that last contact was. Marketers are willing to accept the hit on the performance of their databases and analytical queries of holding out-of-date information in return for some sense of completeness.

That belief in having an all-encompassing view is as flawed as the idea that eventually a piece of DNA data will help solve a crime. With the latter, only 2 per cent of crime scenes actually yield viable DNA samples. In the marketing database, only 2 per cent of customers may respond to an offer in any given period. That makes it hard to justify keeping records on the majority because of the behaviour of a minority.

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